Improving Education Can Piece America Back Together

After a year of uncertainty — especially for our nation’s schools — and another acrimonious election, the White House and Congress have an arduous path ahead. Fortunately, the desire for every student to receive a high-quality education in America is universal. And there is precedent for both sides of Congress coming together to better our nation’s education system.

In the first year of the Bush administration, Republicans and Democrats came together and forged consensus to pass the No Child Left Behind Act. In 2015, with Republicans controlling both chambers of Congress, President Barack Obama signed into law the Every Student Succeeds Act following bipartisan leadership from, most notably, Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.).

By focusing on education, the Biden-Harris administration and members of Congress can find common ground to solve critical challenges facing our kids, families and educators.

First, we must help schools through this pandemic. Leaders of both parties want our nation’s schools to reopen, but at the local level the opposition is dug in. Under the leadership of newly confirmed Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, the administration must continue to convince the nation that schools can safely return students to schools using new federal relief funds. That is priority No. 1.

Second, the federal government must support emergency preparedness for our education system. The COVID shutdowns exposed how woefully unprepared states and schools were for long-term school building closures. School districts are struggling to provide continuity of learning for students. The “emergency remote learning” that is occurring in many school systems is inadequate and especially damaging for students with disabilities, students of color, and students who are academically at-risk or economically-disadvantaged. Sadly, those suffering the most are those most in need.

Next, the shutdowns laid bare many of the inequities that exist in America’s K-12 education system, including a widening digital divide. Nationwide, across all racial and ethnic groups, nearly 17 million children were locked out from instruction because their families lack the home internet access necessary to support online learning.

According to Pew Research, 59 percent of U.S. parents with lower incomes say their child will face digital obstacles in schoolwork. One-quarter of Black teens said they often or sometimes cannot do schoolwork at home due to lack of reliable access to computer or internet connectivity.

As we look to the country’s economic recovery and repairing our infrastructure, the administration and Congress should work together to ensure that state and local school districts are fully prepared with the resources and support needed to provide continuity of learning to their students in the event of long-term school closures. A robust education infrastructure plan should include funding and support for reliable technology, high quality online learning content, and effective teacher training. In a 21st century economy, every student should have access to high-speed internet and computers to learn in school or remotely. Such infrastructure is critical not only in the event of future school shutdowns but also to meet the needs of students who cannot physically attend school due to safety or health concerns.

Finally, expanding career-readiness education opportunities should be a focus of the federal government and one that can find bipartisan agreement. Both Republican and Democratic governors have made career and technical education a centerpiece of their education plans. The Biden-Harris administration also vowed to invest in career readiness opportunities, including partnerships between high schools, colleges and employers, and programs that allow high school students to earn industry credentials upon graduation.

The federal government must lead in these efforts by helping states and school districts rethink and redesign how education is delivered to meet near-term and long-term challenges. And while the new administration and both parties in Congress will undoubtedly lock horns on several controversial issues in the coming months, education could once again emerge as a pathway to success.

Kevin P. Chavous is president of Academic Policy and External Affairs at Stride, Inc., a learning company, and the former Education Committee chair of the Council of the District of Columbia. George Miller is a former chair of the Committee on Education and Labor in the U.S. House of Representatives.

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