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Opinion | We need to rebuild our civic foundation: our education system

Given the crisis we are in, the education discussion we should be having is much bigger than merely when and how to open schools safely — but rather, what must we accomplish through public education?

John Austin and Elisabeth Tobia
John Austin is the former president of the Michigan State Board of Education and current director of the Michigan Economic Center. Elisabeth Tobia is CEO of a consortium of early learning centers in Lansing, Michigan.

Pre-pandemic, a fast-changing economy already put a premium on education as the key factor in personal economic opportunity and family security. Now a confluence of events makes this the moment to recraft our public education system, arguably the civic foundation of our society:

  • A COVID-19-reshaped world that obliterates jobs and opportunity for those without new skills demands a national upskilling of adult workers;
  • A pandemic that kills the poor and people of color, alongside unconscionable police brutality, combine to spark a tinderbox of long-simmering anger and frustration at racial and social inequities — including in education — now, finally, deemed unacceptable;
  • New tensions are exposed as we reorganize learning for a post-COVID-19 world. We consider carefully how to open schools and universities to be safe, but demand the opening of child care centers to serve front-line workers and parents desperate to get work done — exposing arguably the children least able to cope (and their caregivers and teachers) to danger.

These dynamics have converged in a perfect storm that demands the wholesale reimagining of what constitutes an essential public education. Now is the time to overhaul our education delivery model, and make free, high-quality education a public good and birthright for every American from preschool through college.

We have done this before. We have united as a society, collaborated, even combined resources, to reimagine education. One hundred and fifty years ago the residents of Kalamazoo, Michigan taxed themselves to create the nation’s first free public high school. In the 19th Century, including at the height of Civil War, we began to create high-quality, free or extraordinarily affordable public universities and community colleges. These institutions were purpose-built, made for every man and woman — not just the elites — and designed to meet the demands of a changing society and economy. Fifteen years ago, Kalamazoo once again showed the way, effectively sparking the free college movement with a guarantee of a free higher education for children graduating from Kalamazoo schools.

Now is the time to take the next step: to use the COVID-19 crisis moment to make the big changes to public education and brings its benefits to all. This reimagined education system — our civic and economic cornerstone — must be rebuilt following five core principles:

Year-round education. We must break the bonds of the agrarian calendar that has locked education in the 19th Century. Years of acknowledging the limits (and even damage) of a “summers-off” education system — not responsive to today’s skill-building needs, family and work patterns — has not changed the basic paradigm. As COVID-19 drove learners online, some schools responded better than others, ramping up effective education offerings. But it is curious that more school districts, colleges and universities haven’t said, “Let’s use this crisis to finally move to learning during summer, both to make up for learning lost, and to set a new pattern for the future.”

Elevate and integrate great teaching in new delivery models. We know teacher quality is among the most significant contributors to student learning and earning outcomes, particularly for poor and minority students. Even if the classroom is the Internet, guidance and coaching by a great teacher produces better learning outcomes. Good teachers help students use these new technologies — making them a learning asset — versus what can too often be an unguided experience that doesn’t deliver learning gains. It’s time we elevated and paid those in the profession, ensured teachers have the professional development and support to meet the different learning needs of students, and to maximize the benefits of in-person and online instruction both.

Free public education for all, paid for by those who can. We need a public education system that is a shared responsibility. Free universal preschool through college should be paid for by all of us, based on our ability to contribute. If those who are “winning” in today’s economy — from the wealthy tech-entrepreneur and financier, to companies making billions off our communications — aren’t willing to invest and pay for equitable educational opportunities, we will continue to see unrest in the streets. If the child care centers we push to remain open for essential, front-line workers (often people of color and working poor) aren’t subsidized they will only be able to serve people of means.

Quality preschool, K-12, and higher education should be delivered regardless of race, income, and location. The best schools, colleges, and universities do this through socioeconomically-integrated environments with purposeful attention to meet differential learning needs, ensuring comparable learning outcomes for all. The U.S. has failed miserably since Brown vs. Board of Education to provide equal and equitable education. And you can forget about integration. But these things can be done, and when they are, they do improve learning outcomes. Some say this is a bridge too far: but if Raleigh-Durham, N.C., Cambridge, Mass., and Howard County, Md. can integrate schools by race and income levels and elevate outcomes for all, and Georgia Tech can demonstrate minority and majority students can complete degrees at comparable rates — it can be done.

Education quality control. We’ve seen what happens when public tax dollars are available to for-profit educators, unless properly regulated. Proprietary colleges promise the moon, take the Pell Grants, then leave students high and dry with a pile of debt and no diploma. For-profit charter schools and virtual-only education companies are often more concerned with money-making than learning outcomes, doing particular damage to the poor and students of color.

Crisis means opportunity. This crisis is the time to act.

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