Bipartisan boost: How Congress promises to cooperate on K-12 recovery

The just-launched Public Schools Caucus will focus on reversing learning loss as well as parents and teacher retention.

Leaders of a newly launched Public Schools Caucus in Congress plan to mount a bipartisan effort to rethink public education in the wake of COVID and the educational challenges it exposed. The group’s work will center on reversing the learning loss students suffered during remote learning, teacher absences, and other disruptions of the pandemic.

The ultimate goal is to rebuild public schools to provide all students with pathways to economic and social mobility. “It’s becoming nauseating to have the same debate and over again and we’re not actually talking to each other; we’re not actually listening to each other,” co-chair Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-NY) said during the caucus’ web conference kickoff Tuesday. “We can come together as Democrats and Republicans with a bipartisan vision for reimagining public education in the wake of COVID. We’ll discover we have more in common than we think.”

The caucus will seek to leverage K-12 innovations that proved successful during the pandemic to build more resilient schools and improve student outcomes. Year-round schooling is one model Torres would like the caucus to examine. “I am not a fan of summer vacation,” he said. “The idea that you can take a two-month absence and retain everything learned in the previous year is an absurdity.”

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Giving teachers more flexibility over instruction is another concept that would benefit students and potentially stem the tide of teacher shortages, said co-chair Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks (R-IA). The K-12 system has become too “federal Department of Education-focused,” leading to a one-size-fits-all approach in many classrooms, she said.

“Are (teachers) so scripted on what they have to teach and how many minutes they have to spend on certain subjects or a non-traditional subject? Does a teacher have the ability to address that?” Miller-Meeks asked. “Are we valuing the teachers we have and the education they’re bringing with them into teaching?”

Other teacher retention and recruitment measures could include loan repayment, scholarships, increasing pay, revising credentialing requirements and examining how much districts pay teachers vs. administrators, she said.

Torres and Miller-Meeks hope to support an expansion of vocational pathway programs such as the dual degree P-Tech program initiated by IBM. High school students can earn associate’s degrees and a head start into employment with the tech giant. “That should be the standard rather than a model,” Torres said. “Every corporation should be partnering with public schools.”

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Both also agreed that charter schools and parental choice have roles to play in K-12’s recovery from the pandemic. Torres points to New York City’s carefully regulated and nonprofit charter systems, such as the Success Academy, which predominantly serves students of color and low-income populations. “We need to ensure parents have the ability to send their children to the best possible school,” Torres said. “We cannot presume to know more about what is best for children than their parents do. We have to give proper deference to parents.”

A few silver linings of remote learning and K-12’s COVID experience are that many parents became more involved in their children’s education and communities came together to support schools, Miller-Meeks added. “Sometimes we forget the purpose of education is to educate–to open worlds for people,” she said. “And we want parents to feel they’re involved and that they matter. If we focus on that rather than what difference we have, I think both parties and all education systems, regardless of the governance model, can come to common-sense solutions.”

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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