We are state senators from different states. From different political parties. Nevertheless, we’ve become great friends, though there are issues on which we don’t see eye to eye. Ensuring all kids have the opportunities they need to be successful isn’t one of them. Like our colleagues in statehouses elsewhere, we want all young people to thrive. The question is how do we make that a reality? And how can we work toward that reality in a bipartisan way, particularly when policy discussions have become so acrimonious?
We’ve been honored to be part of a national team of Republicans and Democrats convened by the Aspen Institute to develop a productive bipartisan agenda for public education founded on a set of principles. From that convening, we created the Opportunity to Learn principles—nine of them—to help guide state legislators as they seek the optimum conditions for students to develop and grow academically, civically, and socially.
We’re asking our legislative peers to consider and lean on the Opportunities to Learn principles when drafting prospective education bills. It’s not so different from asking someone seeking funding for a public-works project to provide an environmental impact or fiscal statement. And here’s a real-life example of why this matters: In Arkansas, for example, Joyce put forward legislation a few years ago to end corporal punishment in schools. What ultimately passed was specifically (and narrowly) focused on students with disabilities. Had we used the OTL framework when developing our legislation, it would have given us a clearer picture of the scope and breadth of the impact of the state’s corporal punishment law on all students. Principle No. 4, for example, addresses the fact that “all students deserve safe and healthy environments that are conducive to academic learning.” In other words, the framework would have provided a lens through which adults could have considered how punitive physical contact negatively affects students’ perception of schools as a safe, healthy environment.
We must get rid of silos. Too often, legislators and state agencies don’t talk to each other, leaving the weight of ensuring kids do well in school to fall solely on a state’s education department or schools themselves. Health, housing, economic development agencies, local government bodies, and legislative committees must be part of the education conversation. They must coordinate with one another and the state education department to address the full picture of educating children. By modeling cross-committee engagement, state legislators can use their oversight function to signal the importance of cross-agency collaboration, including by bringing together leaders from multiple agencies at a single hearing.
Some trends aimed at bringing more coherence to cross-agency collaboration are emerging, including the growth of children’s cabinets, typically made up of heads of agencies that provide services to children and families. The state of Indiana has a Commission on Improving the Status of Children, which has recommended several successful changes to state law affecting children, including expanding developmental screening for young children and creating a new Juvenile Justice Reform Task Force. It is a model we can learn from.
State policymakers need to partner in authentic ways with nongovernmental stakeholders, including families and educators. We’d like to see more parents in the room where it happens—whether that’s the classroom or hearing room or an accessible, comfortable place in the community. State leaders need to help ensure agency leadership is socioeconomically, racially, and geographically diverse. Leaders can create advisory boards that have representation from historically marginalized groups in the state. The boards’ advice and feedback should be shared publicly.
State data collection should be streamlined and shared across agencies while protecting the rights of students and families. The state has the authority to authorize and fund more integrated data systems, and it should.
As stewards of public education, state policymakers must work across differences to provide a public education for every student that helps them develop a healthy sense of self, prepares them for participation in civic life, and provides skills they need to succeed in the future of work.
Starting with an opportunity mindset and developing an opportunity to learn agenda is key to rebuilding the bipartisan public education system that this moment demands.
A version of this article appeared in the May 03, 2023 edition of Education Week as A Bipartisan Agenda for Schools Is Absolutely Possible