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What Should Progressives Do on Education if They Gain Power This Fall?

By Alyson Klein — March 28, 2018 4 min read
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Progressives are out of power in Washington right now—but that could change after the midterm elections. Democrats seem to have a good shot at taking back the U.S. House of Representatives this fall, even if they face longer odds in the Senate. And they are poised to make gains at the state level, where they are badly outnumbered in of governorships and state legislatures.

So, if progressives are handed new power at the polls, how should they use it to boost issues they have promoted in the past such as educational equity and ensuring children are prepared for college and ultimately, successful in the workplace?

The Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank that was closely associated with the Obama administration, has seven big ideas, for K-12 schools, outlined in a new report:

Provide a tutor for every child performing below grade level: Tutoring has yielded big gains in high-needs schools in Chicago and in Lawrence, Mass. Tutoring can provide struggling students not just with academic help, but with emotional support, the report says. CAP noted that mandatory tutoring under the No Child Left Behind Act wasn’t high-quality, so it suggests no new mandates. Instead, tutoring could grow at the local level, helped along by things like an AmeriCorps expansion.

Offer free breakfast and lunch to all students, regardless of income: Kids who get full, nutritious meals are much more likely to do well in school, the report notes. But why give Bill Gates’ kids free breakfast? Middle- and higher-income parents could use a break from packing lunches, the report argues, plus there will be less of a stigma on the free meals if everyone gets them. Plus, if something is universal it is less likely to get axed, noted Lisette Partelow, who is the director of K-12 Strategic Initiatives at CAP and the lead author of the report.

Ensure opportunities to combine college preparatory academics with technical workplace experience: Giving students exposure to careers where they apply what they are learning in school will make academics more relevant, the report argues. Plus, students who are enrolled in high-quality career- and technical-education programs are more likely to graduate from high school.

Transition to a 9-to-5 school day to better fit parents’ needs: The median school day ends at 2:50 p.m., hours before most parents get out of work, according to statistics cited by CAP. That makes life tough for working parents. Those changes would have to be done at the state and local level, but the feds could help by encouraging districts to use Title I funding to lengthen the school day. Congress could also boost funding for initiatives like the more than $1 billion 21st Century Community Learning Centers program that can be used for after-school or extended-day programs.

Support, train, and pay teachers like professionals: Teachers make about 60 percent of what similarly educated professionals make, according to statistics cited in the report. CAP calls for a base salary of $50,000, up from the current average of $38,000 for new teachers. More-experienced educators with a track record of success should make at least $100,000, the report says. Some of those increases could be accomplished through a federal tax credit, aimed at teachers who work in high-poverty schools. CAP also wants to boost training, through things like residency programs.

Create a safe and healthy environment in every school: CAP wants to see more resources to hire social workers, school counselors, and school psychologists. The think tank would also like to make sure the same person isn’t responsible for, say, college counseling and scheduling, and student mental health. Counselors and social workers should have different roles, and all students should have access to both, the report argues.

Eliminate crumbling school buildings: Kids can’t learn in buildings that have no heat or a leaky roof, the report argues. CAP wants to see a national infrastructure program, targeted to schools with the most need.

These ideas are aimed at getting students ready for the modern economy, CAP says. Of the 11.6 million jobs created since the Great Recession in 2008, nearly all of them, 11.5 million, went to workers with at least some college education. Nearly three-quarters went to workers with at least a bachelor’s degree, according to a Georgetown University report cited by CAP.

Of course, none of these proposals are especially cheap. CAP has some ideas that would help cover at least part of the cost, including passing a legislative solution for “Dreamers” (undocumented immigrants who came to the country as children); cutting down on prison costs by locking up fewer people for nonviolent offenses; and taxing marijuana sales. None of those are politically easy.

CAP is obviously swinging for the fences here—it’s hard to imagine all of these ideas getting through Congress or a statehouse in one fell swoop anytime in the near future, without some significant changes .

But that’s not the point, said Partelow. CAP wasn’t trying to figure out what could pass Congress tomorrow, she said, even as she noted that some of the proposals might have a surprising amount of traction, given that lawmakers just approved a big increase for K-12.

“We’re really excited about this as a counter balance, as an answer to the ideas we’re seeing put forward by [U.S. Secretary of Education] Betsy DeVos and the Trump administration. We think they are good policy and they are the right thing to do for students,” Partelow said. And she added that candidates for Congress and statehouses “are free to steal any and all of these ideas,” even if she added, they don’t implement them all exactly as CAP envisions.

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