Category Archives: Politics of Education

Post-Espinoza, It’s Time to Embrace More Pluralism

The majority opinion in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue from Chief Justice Roberts could not be more clear: “A State need not subsidize private education. But once a State decides to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious.” With this ruling, “Blaine Amendments” in state constitutions were essentially repealed. It’s an unequivocal victory for school choice advocates on the question of who can operate a school with public funding, decidedly in favor of a pluralistic approach.

Research shows that areas with more religious individuals are correlated with greater upward mobility. But the option for some students to attend religious schools is no panacea. As Espinoza forces state policy to become more agnostic on the question of who operates schools, policymakers will have to grapple with how to balance the autonomy of multiple school providers – public and non-public alike – with policies that protect the rights of families and ensure that public funding for education produces adequately educated citizens.

Schools from McKinley and Cibola Counties in NM gathered at the Cathedral for a Mass celebrated by Bishop James Wall.

Catholic school mass via Flickr user dioceseofgallup

The first question policymakers need to address is that of access: which families have access to which schools through public funding? All students – regardless of where they live – ought to have equal admissions access to publicly funded schools, whether they are operated by a public school district or a religious organization. This principle should be applied to voucher-type programs and public schools alike. Schools across all sectors have a nasty history of excluding poor and Black students, whether through attendance boundaries created to protect affluent white “public” schools or “segregation academies” in the private sector.. Public and private schools alike should embrace the principle that any student is welcome to apply for a fair shot at enrollment, regardless of where they lay down their head at night.

Second, just as families deserve fair access to publicly-funded schools, they should also not be forced to enroll their children at schools they view as harmful. Accordingly, policymakers must ensure that religious schools are not the only option available to families. No family should be effectively required to enroll their child at a school that violates their family’s religious beliefs. This is of greatest concern in rural areas, where the geographic density of students may not support multiple school operators. States could consider population density minimums or market share caps for private school operators to receive public subsidy in a given area.  Continue reading

Business Organizations Play a Key Role in Education Advocacy Post-COVID

Questions about when and how to reopen schools will have ripple effects for the business sector and broader economy. If schools cannot open at all, or open only part-time or for small groups of students on a rotating basis, adults cannot return to work. Without a workforce, businesses cannot reopen and the economy remains shuttered. As a result, the business community has an especially important role to play in current deliberations about whether and how to reopen schools.

Business advocacy organizations, such as chambers of commerce and business roundtables, are well-suited to engage in these deliberations. These organizations advocate on behalf of policies that ensure students gain the skills, knowledge, and experiences they need to be successful in the current and future economy. This can look like helping to pass legislation requiring computer science coursework or successfully advocating for legislation to improve access to industry-recognized credentials and work-based learning experiences. In light of the current pandemic, business advocacy organizations bring an important voice to the conversation about what schooling could and should look like in the near future.  

What makes these organizations well-suited to engage in these conversations? While there’s limited research examining how the most successful organizations work, my colleagues and I recently completed a report that uncovered three key strengths that the most successful have in common. 

First, business advocacy organizations have a deep understanding of the advocacy landscape in their state and understand how to bring diverse groups — such as Republicans and Democrats or business and labor — together for a common cause. In Washington State, for example, the Washington Roundtable coordinates the College Promise Coalition, which includes stakeholders from public and private two- and four-year colleges and universities, students, families, alumni, education advocates, education leaders, and business leaders. As part of its advocacy to improve enrollment and completion rates in the state’s postsecondary institutions, the coalition’s broad base demonstrated widespread support for the Workforce Education Investment Act, which ultimately passed. Coordinating community-wide efforts like these will be imperative as regions work to repair their business, economic, and education sectors in a post-COVID world.  Continue reading

Business Leaders Must Continue to Engage in Education Advocacy

The business and education sectors are feeling the effects of the coronavirus pandemic acutely. Among small businesses, 75% have applied for emergency relief from the federal government and nearly three in ten have reduced staff. About half report having less than one month cash on hand. At the same time, tens of thousands of schools are closed and uneven transitions to distance education suggest significant adverse effects on student learning.

That’s why, even as the business community struggles to keep its head above water, business leaders must continue to invest time and energy into supporting the best possible paths forward for students — our nation’s future employees, professionals, and entrepreneurs.

A strong education system is key to economic growth, something that will be a priority after this crisis. In addition to the vast research linking a population’s education to economic prosperity, it’s impossible to miss how the unemployment rate for high-school graduates is currently at least twice that for those who hold at least a bachelor’s degree. As policymakers think about economic recovery in the years ahead, they will benefit from the business community’s vantage point on the skills and knowledge students need to be successful.

cover of May 2020 bellwether report

National business groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce include education as a policy priority; other business organizations, like America Succeeds, focus exclusively on education issues. In recent years, these and other business efforts have lent their voice to the drive toward providing strong options for students after high school, including apprenticeships and industry certifications alongside four-year college degrees. But business associations have a long track record of engaging in essential education issues; they were an important part of the coalition advancing higher standards and accountability in the 1990s, which helped shine a light on vast inequities in the education system and created urgency for reform.

Today, with the learning trajectories of students in turmoil, the business community again has a stake in charting the path forward. Business advocacy organizations can help create space for innovative thinking and drive policy proposals for resources and programs tailored to the needs of their state. And they can impart skills, for instance convening school leaders who benefit from management training. In Washington State, Partnership for Learning and the Washington Roundtable have provided leadership training to high school principals.

The business community can also support the continuation of learning for high school students through apprenticeships and other work-based learning experiences, since the school year has been disrupted and postsecondary opportunities have been clouded by economic uncertainty. Colorado Succeeds, an affiliate of America Succeeds, helped establish a state policy that provides school districts and charter schools up to $1,000 per student who completes a qualified industry credential program, work-based learning experience, or relevant coursework.

Of course the business community shouldn’t be the sole voice in education, especially since the purpose of schooling is not just about ensuring future economic prosperity. We also rely on schools to shape upstanding community members and informed citizens. But the business community absolutely has interests aligned to the success of today’s students — its perspectives are legitimate and often valuable.

Educators and policymakers should ensure it has a seat at the table.

A Statement on Solidarity

Friends of Bellwether, 

Right now we are searching for the words to describe what we are feeling: anger, frustration, and also a deep sense of urgency that America must be better than this. This most recent crisis comes in the midst of a pandemic that has robbed many children, often the ones who need great schools the most, of one-third of their learning this year. And on top of all that, Black communities are still being called to demand basic human rights that most Americans take as a matter of course. 

The most recent horrific acts of racist violence against Black citizens are heartbreaking and a painful reminder of the endless ways our public institutions and systems fail Black people and communities. What our country is experiencing is neither new nor unexpected. It’s important to be clear: The killing of George Floyd in Minnesota is not a random event that sparked a sudden or inexplicable backlash; it is part of an inexcusable pattern that must stop.

Our systems of education likewise systematically disenfranchise Black children as well as other historically marginalized students. Even as Bellwether works to address these issues, we believe more radical and broad-based change is required to realize the vision of an equitable and just society.  

We are making space for the visceral pain of our Black teammates and colleagues, and standing with communities across the nation, especially those most targeted by racial injustice. We stand with those fighting to address the ways racism destroys individuals and communities. They do not stand alone — it’s incumbent on all Americans, especially white Americans, not only to speak out, but to act.

Bellwether’s Parent-Teachers in the Time of COVID-19

Here at Bellwether, we consider our people a big asset (we even made a video about how much we like working together). We fancy ourselves as a fun, smart, and high-achieving group committed to facing the biggest challenges in education. Many of our team members were classroom teachers prior to entering administrative, policy, evaluation, and strategy roles at Bellwether, so overseeing the education of our own children should come naturally — right?

Toddler on a coach with a laptop, tablet, smartphone, and videogame controller

Photo courtesy the author

Not exactly. Even with the benefits of a work-from-home culture, a core value of flexibility, and myriad other forms of access and privilege, my teammates are struggling. Many of us are now juggling being both a parent and a professional within the same limited hours in a day.

When I asked the Bellwether parents of pre-Kindergarten through high-school-age students to share their experiences, I got a number of candid responses. Even these competent, tech-savvy, education professionals identified palpable struggles managing their time, knowing how to prioritize support of their home learners, and meeting the individual needs of each child.

The Bellwether parents who responded live in eight different states (Colorado, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Ohio, Texas, and Virginia), and collectively, they have 21 students. Most states were still in the early stages of closure when I conducted these polls, so the experiences below may not reflect improvements schools have made or will make.

What I heard around communications, materials, and processes is both scary and encouraging:

Continue reading