Throughout the past several weeks, Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona has been making the rounds speaking in defense of public education. However, Cardona isn’t really focused on education so much as on the potential political gains available — especially in light of the 30,000 local school board elections set to be held this year.
Cardona has been emphasizing the current administration’s work on education, which largely amounts to a deluge of federal funds. Additional funds might be able to help schools secure the resources they need to bring students up to standards now that we finally have agreed that COVID restrictions caused learning loss. But as is to be expected with big federal programs, something was lost in translation, leaving billions of dollars unspent despite significant need in the schools. Many administrators report that bureaucratic hurdles, as well as staff and vendor shortages, make it difficult to spend the money in the manner and time prescribed by the federal government.
That’s not to say that America should or will abandon public schools anytime soon.
Instead of working to make federal education programs more effective, Cardona is spending his time diving into political debates and trying to convince people — with fear rather than evidence — that liberal ideological priorities will lead to improved academic outcomes. In a recent interview with Reuters, Cardona focused largely on hot-button political issues — like assault weapons, transgender athletes on school sports teams, and affirmative action — instead of discussing how schools can boost lagging academic achievement.
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, who has longstanding political ties to Democrats and President Joe Biden, has also turned her focus away from academics and onto guns and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. One wonders why the Left is surprised that it is losing ground as the party focused on education. (RELATED: Teacher Unions Pick Politics Over Students and Teachers)
What Cardona and his allies have not spent time commenting on is the groundswell of support in states and local communities to try something new in education — something that upends the current political power structure of public schools and puts students first. In the first few months of 2023, Iowa, Utah, Arkansas, and Florida all passed education savings account (ESA) laws, which let parents use public education dollars outside of their zoned public school. Microschools, the next generation of “pandemic pods,” are outlasting the COVID era, with up to 2.2 million students using them as their full-time education provider. Homeschooling rates are down from the 2020 peak but have nevertheless been rising steadily since 2016. Over half of private schools have seen gains in enrollment, and public school enrollment is down from pre-pandemic counts.
That’s not to say that America should or will abandon public schools anytime soon. In a recent State Policy Network poll, 55 percent of voters said that they are satisfied with the public schools in their states. But 74 percent also said that “the most meaningful change happens at the … local level,” and that includes reimagining our schools for the 21st century. Local school districts are rising to that challenge, creating charter schools, vocational programs, alternative learning environments, and public–private partnerships that meet students’ educational needs in a way that blanket mandates or hard-to-access restricted funds from Washington, D.C., never could.
In his interview with Reuters, Cardona unintentionally highlighted the federal government’s outdated approach to education. Speaking about the recent boom in artificial intelligence and what that means for education, Cardona called back to his professional experience and recalled debating how inexpensive pocket calculators might change the educational landscape. This is a decent analogy about the impact of new technology on traditional classroom methods, but it leaves the impression of one clinging to the past, unable to frame the challenge we face in the context of the modern world.
Americans are committed to public education insofar as they believe that an educated population benefits us all and that we should use public funds to achieve that end. But top-down federal approaches to education — which increasingly aim to score political wins rather than to help students — will not get us there.
Erin Norman is the Lee Family Fellow and Senior Messaging Strategist at State Policy Network.
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