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Q&A With CAP’s New Senior Vice President for Education, Jesse O’Connell
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Q&A With CAP’s New Senior Vice President for Education, Jesse O’Connell

Jesse O'Connell, the new senior vice president for Education at the Center for American Progress, talks about the opportunities this moment offers to improve early childhood, K-12, and higher education in the United States.

The Center for American Progress welcomes Jesse O’Connell as senior vice president for Education. In this role, he will lead our efforts to advance policies that guarantee all Americans have access to high-quality educational opportunities across the full learning spectrum—including early childhood, K-12, and higher education. In his role, Jesse will work with the teams to develop, build support for, and successfully implement our education policy agenda. This policy agenda helps inform and is informed by meeting our economy, race equity, health, climate, and democracy challenges.

Prior to joining CAP, Jesse served as strategy director for federal policy at Lumina Foundation, leading the foundation’s federal policy efforts to increase attainment of high-quality credentials and promote affordable postsecondary education. Follow Jesse on Twitter @jesseocnl.

Q&A with Jesse

He hasn’t even wrapped his first week with us, but we wanted to take a moment with Jesse to talk about his perspectives coming in and look at the nation’s priorities at this important moment in history.

CAP: What first drew you to education policy?

Jesse: My grandfather was an immigrant and a domestic worker, and my mom was the first person in her family to go to college—so I grew up acutely aware of the opportunity that education can offer. Later, working in a college financial aid office I spoke every day to students and families and heard about the challenges and barriers they faced trying to get to and through college. It left me with the clear sense that policy change was the most effective lever to address those issues at scale.

CAP: Given a background that has blended professional experiences, from being a college financial aid administrator to a director of federal policy priorities at Lumina Foundation, what perspectives do you look forward to lending our work across education policy?

Jesse: I’ve been really lucky that the various stops in my career have each provided a view into the policymaking process from a different angle. What you see as a funder is different than what you see at an association and is different than what you see as a practitioner. I’d like to think those experiences helped me think comprehensively about the way any given policy is both developed and received, and the value in seeking out different stakeholder perspectives throughout the process—especially in education policy, where community perspective is crucial. And I know the K-12 education policy team at CAP has a huge strength and focus in that regard.

CAP: With the K-12 public education system serving the largest number of students overall, what should Congress and the White House focus on over the next year or two to reimagine the ways public schools should work for all students?

Jesse: There’s no doubt that the federal government needs to continue to increase its investment in public schools, even as policymakers work to improve the equity of our current investment. And that investment must be both in physical schools infrastructure—which we’ve seen a start of through American Rescue Plan funds, but much much more is needed—as well as in our teachers, particularly given the tremendous strain our educator workforce has been under these past two years. I’d hope that we also see federal policymakers continuing to push for more access to rigorous and personalized pathways in K-12.

CAP: The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated the child care workforce and reduced enrollment in early childhood education programs. But these systems were more vulnerable to such a crisis because, historically, the United States has deeply underinvested in early childhood education. How do you perceive the opportunity to address this long-standing problem?

Jesse: The pandemic finally pulled forward in the public consciousness the genuine precariousness that child care providers and early childhood educators face, a crisis that those in the field have been urgently trying to make people aware of for a long time. So if there’s an opportunity before us, it’s that there is finally an audience clamoring for long-overdue investments in early education and child care, and we’ve seen Democrats in Congress really step up to try and get that done. And as policymakers make good on these historic investments, we have the chance to make lasting progress on child care quality, wages, supply, and affordability.

CAP: What are some of the biggest challenges facing higher education today and why?

Jesse: Affordability for sure—that’s still a challenge that cuts across all parts of the sector and lays at the root of both access concerns and the student debt crisis. But it’s also pretty clear that higher ed is plagued with inconsistent quality, and our consumer protection mechanisms and quality assurance processes haven’t been up to the challenges of making sure that students receive the experience and skills they expected from their program. We need to restore student and public trust in the system, because higher education is a crucial part of any effort to build an economy for all.

CAP: Given this unique moment the country finds itself in, what piece of the education policy landscape is drawing your attention? 

Jesse: Given my background in postsecondary education policy, I continue to spend a lot of time thinking about the challenge in how we limit ourselves around what the word “college”—what is it supposed to encompass and express, and how it is still used as a shorthand for a pretty specific and mostly outdated kind of experience. We need policymakers and the public to embrace and celebrate a wider range of pathways after high school, because that’s what today’s students are doing. We came so close to making a historic and sorely needed investment in the nation’s community colleges, and I want to see us get back to that conversation.

More broadly, I care a whole lot about the crucial role that education has to play in renewing our democracy and restoring social trust. Thinking critically, being exposed to a diverse range of ideas, seeing how to engage in civic life: All of this stems from education and is why education is a bedrock of democratic engagement.

CAP: Why CAP? Why now?

Jesse: I genuinely believe that CAP is uniquely positioned to advance key education policy issues at a moment when these issues are set to drive much of the prevailing national political narrative. This stuff matters to people—they’re quintessential kitchen table issues. And because of that, people aren’t looking for good-on-paper but lousy-in-real-life solutions. They want simple, straightforward ideas that make their lives better. That has always been CAP’s strength. I feel really lucky that I have the chance to come onboard with CAP at this moment when the combination of recovery from the pandemic and historic investments in different parts of our education system are giving us this chance to finally bend the curve on access, affordability, and quality outcomes on every level and sector of education.

Some of Jesse’s favorite CAP work

About the Education department

CAP’s Education department aims to change America’s approach to early childhood education, K-12 education, higher education, and lifelong learning by ensuring equitable access to resources, developing community-centered policies, and promoting the ability to participate fully in an inclusive economy built on a strong democracy.

Learn more about the department.

Follow the teams from the Education department on Twitter: @CAPHigherEd; @CAPEarlyEd; @EdProgress.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.

Interviewee

Jesse O’Connell

Senior Vice President, Education

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