After months of campaigning and two rounds of primary debates, presidential candidates still aren’t prioritizing K-12 education. While some have released specific plans, others have only put out general statements or mentioned the issue in passing—if at all. While understandably, proposals to increase access to early childhood and higher education are front and center, it is still disappointing that the 50 million students in K-12 public schools seem to be an afterthought.
America’s education system should be an engine of opportunity that generates shared prosperity by preparing every child for success in college, the workforce, and our democracy. Unfortunately, while many white and middle-class families have access to this preparation, far too many students do not—especially Black, Latinx, Native American, and some Asian American and Pacific Islander students, as well as students from families with low incomes, students with disabilities, and English language learners. The impact of these opportunity gaps is stark. By fourth grade, Black, Latinx, and Native students are less than half as likely as white students to score proficient in reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Moreover, only two-thirds of both students with disabilities and English language learners graduate high school, compared with 85 percent for all students.
The federal government must take an active role in ensuring equitable access to educational opportunity across the country, and the next president must have a comprehensive agenda for improving K-12 education. Here are the questions that candidates need to answer so Americans can evaluate how serious they are about making sure that every child has access to an excellent public school.
1. What role should the federal government play in eliminating racial disparities in investment, discipline, and access to quality learning options in American schools?
Every child deserves access to high-quality public schools, but unfortunately, students in the United States currently attend schools with large funding disparities rooted in race. One analysis found a $23 billion funding gap between districts primarily serving white students and those primarily serving nonwhite students. Since President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 as part of the “War on Poverty,” the federal government has made efforts to reduce such funding disparities; yet these efforts have been insufficient. The U.S. Department of Education has also been failing in its role to serve as a backstop to reduce and prevent other educational disparities, such as those related to school discipline or access to rigorous coursework.
2. Would you support increasing federal and state investment in education and reducing reliance on local property taxes?
On average, states provide 47 percent of education funding and local school districts provide another 45 percent, with the federal government contributing only 8 percent. This means that when state or local economies experience downturns, schools suffer, as was the case in many states and locales following the Great Recession. Reliance on local taxes for the bulk of school funding also contributes greatly to funding inequities between communities, as some districts lack the tax base necessary to ensure adequate levels of per-pupil spending. What’s more, greater federal funding has the support of the public, with two-thirds of Americans agreeing that the federal government should pay a larger share.
3. How would you better target federal education funds to students and schools with the greatest need?
The largest source of federal education funding for local school districts is Title I of the Every Student Succeeds Act. This program, which Congress funded at $15.9 billion in 2019, is intended to provide the supplemental resources that students living in areas of concentrated poverty need to achieve at high levels. Yet Title I is complicated, with several formulas for distribution layered on top of one another. Moreover, it has never been funded at the levels needed to eliminate opportunity gaps for students from families with low incomes. More can be done at the federal level to reduce funding inequities and ensure that all schools have the resources they need to provide students with a high-quality education.
4. What resources and conditions lead to an excellent school, and how will you make sure that every K-12 student—especially those from historically marginalized communities—has access to these schools?
Research is clear that money matters in education, particularly for students in schools with high levels of poverty. More funding for schools means that more students have access to reasonable class sizes, school buildings that provide safe and healthy learning environments, well-supported teachers, and student support personnel such as school counselors and nurses. These resources are even more important in places where underinvestment or disinvestment in schools and communities has been chronic. For example, only 38 percent of high schools with high percentages of Black and Latinx students offer calculus, compared with 50 percent of all high schools.
5. How will you make sure that kindergarten through 12th grade classes align with what students need to prepare for college and the workforce?
A recent CAP analysis found that high school diploma requirements are rarely aligned with the entrance requirements for state institutions of higher education. This is just one way that students—even when they work to fulfill all the requirements for high school graduation—are left unprepared for college and career. And this lack of preparation is compounded by changes in the nature of work that will likely require workers to acquire more skills or even change careers in order to secure gainful employment. Improvements in career and technical education and increased access to dual enrollment and early college programs would likely improve outcomes for students. But states and school districts need to consider alignment across the entire K-12 continuum so that all students are ready to take advantage of these opportunities.
6. How will you break down barriers between K-12 education, postsecondary education, and industry to prepare students in American schools for the future economy?
In the past few decades, big shifts in the U.S. economy have ensured that the jobs and careers of today’s students will look different than those of past generations. Today, students can expect to change jobs, need to reskill, and even change the sector in which they work more frequently, which means that they need to be prepared to do a variety of jobs. Furthermore, changing technology, such as increased automation and more widespread use of artificial intelligence, is expected to be a growing part of the workforce landscape. In order to ensure that all students have access to jobs that can provide salaries capable of sustaining a family in this new economy, policymakers will need to encourage much greater alignment and collaboration between the K-12 education, postsecondary education, and workforce sectors.
7. How will you make sure that all educators and support personnel in U.S. schools are paid a professional and family-sustaining salary?
Teachers earn 13 percent less than other college-educated professionals; in every state, they face a pay penalty relative to their peers with similar levels of education. Paraprofessionals’ salaries are even lower, despite providing some of the most important support roles in schools. In fact, these educators earn so little for their work that they are eligible for Medicaid or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. Paying teachers and other school staff salaries commensurate with their responsibilities is a crucial piece of long-term efforts to improve the quality of U.S. schools.
8. How will you improve working conditions for educators?
Despite the challenges and importance of their work, not only are teachers paid poorly, but their working conditions also do not match those of other professionals. While careers in medicine and law require intensive and lengthy training, teacher preparation programs too often fail to get teachers ready for the demands of the modern classroom. Once in the classroom, teachers in the United States are not given enough time to plan and collaborate in ways that would improve pedagogy and drive student learning—even though other high-performing nations have seen success by prioritizing this kind of professional development. Opportunities for advancement and growth, while common in other fields, are rare in teaching. In order to attract and retain talented young people to the profession, policymakers must work to modernize and elevate teachers’ training and working conditions.
9. How will you prioritize the development of a more racially diverse teaching workforce?
Decades of qualitative work and a growing body of quantitative research demonstrate that teachers of color can make a difference for students of color, from providing culturally relevant pedagogy to holding students to higher expectations to reducing discipline disparities. These kinds of practices may be the reason why, in several studies, Black students who had same-race teachers were found to experience improved academic achievement, greater educational attainment, and even higher salaries as adults. Yet the pipeline for Black teachers—and other teachers of color—is leaky, and as a result, the teacher workforce remains 80 percent white. The United States and its policymakers need to do more to recruit and retain a racially diverse teacher workforce so that all students can see themselves reflected in the classroom.
10. How will you approach public school choice as a strategy to create a high-quality school option for every child?
In too many communities, parents struggle to find high-quality educational options for their children. This is especially true in places where many families are low income and nonwhite. In these communities, a well-regulated and accountable system of public school choice—including traditional neighborhood schools, magnet or specialized schools, and public charter schools—can expand opportunity by providing more families access to excellent public schools. For example, charter schools in urban areas that serve both students of color and students from families with low-incomes tend to be successful at improving academic outcomes. However, there are legitimate criticisms of the charter sector that policymakers should address, including problems with for-profit virtual charter schools, how charters approach filling open seats during the school year, and the negative impact that charter expansion can have on the finances of nearby traditional districts.
Improving education and addressing long-standing gaps in opportunity and outcomes for students from historically marginalized communities will take a sustained effort at all levels of government. Heading into a presidential election year, it is more important than ever for U.S. leaders to have a clear vision for how they will focus the federal government on helping the students, families, and schools that need the most support. Education is the backbone of this nation’s economy and democracy, and it should be at the top of mind for presidential candidates.
Scott Sargrad is the vice president of K-12 Education Policy at the Center for American Progress. Lisette Partelow is the senior director of K-12 Strategic Initiatives at the Center. Khalilah Harris is the managing director for K-12 Education Policy at the Center.