Education: The Issue that Could Break Partisan Gridlock

Divisive and complex issues such as the pandemic response and critical race theory have a lot to do with the attention now focused on education, but there is also common ground sitting just below the surface

Students in classroom

Of all the takeaways from the 2021 election cycle, education's climb up the list of ballot box concerns is perhaps the most significant. It's not surprising that schools were top of mind in a year dominated by state and local races. But what is surprising is the extent to which voters are now watching education issues — and how willing they are to hold policymakers accountable if they fail to act on parents' top priorities.

In Virginia, which was home to one of two gubernatorial races in 2021, education ranked as likely voters' biggest concern — and it was one of only two issues that ranked in the top five for both Democrats and Republicans alike. In New Jersey, where the other governor's race was run, education ranked behind only taxes, the economy and COVID-19 in terms of importance to voters — and it finished ahead of mainstays such as healthcare, crime, climate change, gun control and immigration.

What does this mean for the new and incumbent elected officials we'll be counting on in 2022 and beyond? It demands that they ask themselves two simple questions: What do parents want us to do, and what can we actually get done at a time when partisan gridlock threatens progress in all but the most decidedly red and blue jurisdictions? As it turns out, there are answers that satisfy both criteria — and they are available to policymakers at all three levels of government.

Divisive and complex issues such as the pandemic response and critical race theory have a lot to do with the attention now focused on education, but there is also common ground sitting just below the surface — and action on those items has the potential to make a major impact on the lives of students across the country.

Just where does that common ground reside?

Federal Policy: Increase Access to Broadband Technology

In a May 2021 survey conducted by my company, 77% of parents said that better internet access would be beneficial to students, and 75% indicated that children would perform better with more technology resources. While these figures are somewhat related to our reliance on virtual learning during the pandemic, they are also deeply rooted in the belief that technology will play a big role in developing students' creativity, ingenuity and intellectual curiosity moving forward — and not just because demand for distance learning programs will continue post-pandemic.

Earl Phalen, the CEO of Phalen Leadership Academies, recently told me that technology is not just about connecting students to learning; but about enriching the learning that takes place: "It stimulates our students in many different ways," he says. "We see it in their writing skills, in their public speaking skills, and a host of other areas where technology complements and breathes life into the lesson plan."

Given the growing role of technology both inside and outside the classroom, federal policymakers ought to be able to come together around efforts to increase student access to broadband technology through the National Education Technology Plan. The infrastructure bill signed into law in November includes $65 billion for improving broadband and is certainly a step in the right direction.

State Policy: Integrate Modern Skillsets Into the Curriculum

During the pandemic, parents weren't just concerned with how their kids were learning, they became more attuned to what their kids were learning as well. As a result, they are increasingly seeking changes to curricula that put less emphasis on rote memorization of facts and figures and more emphasis on things like problem-solving, critical thinking, collaboration and other soft skills. That's an important shift — because the jobs of the future aren't about what you know — they are about what you can learn.

In a recent interview, Stedman Graham, an author and businessperson who works at the intersection of education and commerce, discussed how these abilities are precisely what employers are looking for today: "Companies want self-directed learners at every level," he says. "You have to constantly reinvent yourself, and that's a skill that needs to be developed from an early age." By infusing curricula with more opportunities for students to focus on these softer skills, state-level education officials can create a win-win that both parents and employers will appreciate.

Local Policy: Provide Parents with More Choices

If policymakers learn just one thing from the 2021 election cycle, it is that many parents want more control over their children's education. Alisha Morgan, a former member of the Georgia state legislature and representative for the National Coalition for Public School Options, explained that "parents don't just see themselves as consumers of the educational system anymore... They see that they have the power to change the system, and they aren't going to be shy about using it."

It doesn't matter if they are Democrats or Republicans, parents want more power. And that means expanding the choices available to them if their locally assigned school does not work for their kids. From public charter schools to private school choice opportunities — including Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) — to online schools and course choice options, these and a number of other measures need to be at the top of the agenda for state and local policymakers who want to remain aligned with their constituents.

It Should Be About Progress, Not Politics

These three policy priorities have the power to make a significant impact on the quality of education in the United States. Each is popular with parents and can find bipartisan support to bring our elected officials together, even in this era of hyper-partisanship and unprecedented gridlock.

As such, education may be our last, best opportunity to put progress ahead of politics. For the sake of students and parents across the country, let's hope our policymakers seize it.