Preserve Our Liberty to Learn

education_in_americafrom – AEI.org – by Gerard Robinson

July is an important month in American history, particularly as it relates to liberty. American leaders supported the Declaration of Independence in July 1776, announced that nine states had ratified the Constitution in July 1788 and signed the Civil Rights Act in July 1964. This July, Republican and Democratic convention leaders selected Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton as their nominees for president. Although each party platform and nominee talked up the promises of pre-K–20 education, no clear agenda was put forth. With less than 100 days to the election, I offer the nominees five pillars to preserving America’s liberty to “L.E.A.R.N.”

Literacy is the foundation for all competencies – in the U.S. and abroad. Millions of Americans are thriving in our knowledge economy, but too many have failed to reach their full potential because of literacy challenges. These challenges do not begin in adulthood; they start years earlier. A 2011 Annie E. Casey Foundation study identified that a student who cannot read proficiently by the third grade is four times more likely to drop out of high school. Even some of our high school graduates have literacy challenges that show up in the workforce.

The Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies identified the skills needed for adults aged 16 to 65 to fully participate in a knowledge economy. Americans scored below the program’s average on literacy skills, finished 15 out of 22 nations on numeracy skills and placed last on the problem-solving in technology-rich environments measure. The next president can boost growth, productivity and increase profits and wages for employers and workers by investing in programs that improve literacy skills from preschool into adulthood.

Entrepreneurship is the antithesis of the bureaucratic model that has been a hallmark of the “one best system” for more than 100 years. The time is ripe for more entrepreneurial ways to deliver teaching and learning in pre-K–20 education. This endeavor, however, requires a herculean shift in values.

An entrepreneurial approach sees a problem as an opportunity; a bureaucratic approach sees an opportunity as a problem. For instance, textbooks cost too much. This is a problem. The bureaucratic approach does two things: buys more textbooks “in bulk” to lower the purchase cost and then stores the unused surplus. The entrepreneurial approach negotiates with textbook publishers and technology executives to create a digital textbook where material is updated periodically to ensure students’ learning curves keep pace with the speed of knowledge production. To truly make our schools stronger, the next president must invest in a reform agenda that makes opportunity a winning solution for as many teachers and students as possible by leveraging entrepreneurial approaches.

Achievement in the U.S. is a tale about gaps. On the one hand are students doing well academically. We see them in positions of power in government and the private sector alike. On the other hand are students who are performing poorly. We see them in a state of economic insecurity, in the ranks of the unemployed or the unemployable, and incarcerated in our state and federal prisons. To truly make our nation great, the next president must acknowledge a host of social and cognitive dynamics that lend only some Americans a hand (and backhand too many) and then create a workable plan of action to foster greater opportunity for all.

Resources matter to education. However, most debates about school funding revolve around revenue. According to a 2015 report published by the National Association of State Budget Officers, state governments spent $344.6 billion on elementary and secondary education. The state share of funding for education was 45.6 percent, while the local share was 45.3 percent. According to the report, the federal government invested 9.1 percent in K-12 education. While not a large percentage of overall K-12 spending, the federal government remains an important investor in education through multiple funding sources.

For instance, the 2016 federal appropriation law provided $16 billion to the federal Department of Education’s Office of Elementary and Secondary Education programs, some of which is targeted to disadvantaged children and youth. The Department of Health and Human Services has $9.1 billion for Head Start, and the Department of Health and Human Services has money to support over 20 million children receiving free-and-reduced-price lunch. To have a more robust conversation about “does money matter” in education, the next president should discuss revenue, expenditures and outcomes.

Network. Improving the American education system requires a civil society, all-hands-on-deck approach. We cannot expect principals, teachers and parents to assume all of the responsibility for educating American citizens. We all have a role to play, as does government. One idea for the next president is to establish a White House Initiative on Civil Society that would bring leaders from secular and faith-based communities; corporate and nonprofit institutions; and other sectors to work together for families and schools.

Education is a bedrock of American liberty. But unfortunately, education was not a major priority in last month’s conventions. If we want to continue our legacy of liberty, then Americans should demand that candidates put forward ways to truly make education work for all of our nation’s citizens.

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