Federal Educational Investments Are Essential

Our guest author today is Stan Litow, a professor of Public Policy at both Duke and Columbia University. He is a former deputy chancellor of schools in New York City, former president of the IBM Foundation, a trustee of the State University of New York, and a member of the Albert Shanker Institute’s board of directors. His book, The Challenge for Business and Society: From Risk to Reward, was published last year.

The Trump Administration’s recent education budget proposal got a lot of attention for trying to eliminate all federal support for the Special Olympics. In response to bipartisan opposition to this foolish proposal, the cut was restored. This is good news, but the bigger story of the Administration’s proposed cuts to educational programs—and their impact on the most critical issues facing the nation—got lost in what appeared to be a positive result. The cut to the Special Olympics was misguided, but hardly unique. The overall cuts represent 12 percent of the education budget, or approximately $7 billion.

Among the most misguided cuts are those that would negatively affect college affordability, including reductions in student aid programs such as College Work Study, as well reduced funding for teacher professional development. As with the Special Olympics, there are advocates on both sides of the aisle who are likely to fight hard to reverse these cuts, but reversing the cuts would only represent a modest victory. They would not solve the underlying problems exemplified by the cuts.

Going forward, what’s needed with respect to federal funding for education can be captured in three important points: First, we need to embrace innovation and reform in the existing structures of many of the federal education programs. Second, we need to increase—not decrease—funding aimed at addressing critical problems that desperately need governmental support. Third and perhaps most importantly, we need to figure out how to unite all segments of society behind a campaign to make our public education investments, at all levels and in all neighborhoods, a higher priority and more effective—because failure to do so will negatively affect the stability of our nation’s civil society and economic opportunity for all.

With respect to innovation of existing programs and increased funding, education needs a maximum level of attention. For example, the federal College Work Study program needs to provide students with wages that are higher than the current minimum wage. Right now students working in such jobs, which are overwhelmingly on-campus jobs in cafeterias and libraries, earn less than $8 per hour, hardly enough to make a major dent in rising tuition costs. Federal funding, which currently pays 70 percent of these wages, could just as easily support off-campus jobs that are better connected to students’ career aspirations. These jobs could be in the private sector or in government and not-for-profit agencies, with the stipulation that, in exchange for the federal subsidy, employers pay a decent wage. This would benefit students in two important ways: First, it would increase the amount students earn, thus helping then to meet tuition costs. Secondly and perhaps even more importantly, students could connect their work and study to their career opportunities.  With this kind of reform, the funding for College Work Study ought to be doubled, from close to $1 billion to $2 billion. This would increase the number of students who benefit from the program from about 700,000 to close to 2 million students . In addition to helping to address the crisis in college affordability, these steps would also create a clearer pathway from college to career, especially for low income students thus helping to address the nation’s skills crisis.

In another example, the funding for teacher professional development should be increased significantly, rather than rolled back. There is perhaps no more important issue connected to student success and student achievement than investing in educators’ teaching skills. Programs such as the American Federation of Teachers' Share my Lesson and IBM’s Watson Teacher Advisor (both of which are 100 percent free to users, and neither of which involve any federal, state or local funding) assist teachers in concrete and measurable ways, but they are not nearly enough. Teachers need access to master and mentor teachers, as well as the needed time and support for pursuing professional development opportunities. Funding from the federal government would provide needed support, but could also be used as an incentive for added state, local, business and foundation funding. Here too, a significant increase in federal support could improve offerings and expand the number of teachers served. This would also demonstrate to teachers that their recent efforts in many states to call attention to the nation’s lack of moral and financial support for teachers has been heard and understood. There are other cuts that also need to be reversed, instead requiring added investment, including misguided cuts in health research as well as cuts in student loans all of which have returns on their investments 

Finally, efforts to address the cuts in federal support for education should strive to unite, not divide, all segments of society. Many of our recent educational debates have focused on the issues that divide us: choice, charters, standards, teacher evaluation and privatization. They have sucked far too much energy and attention away from the issues that unite us: creating a clear pathway from school to college and career, meeting the needs of our nation’s students and teachers, using technology in ways that expand opportunity for all, supporting and improving school leadership, and investing in early childhood education. These are issues that can generate broad public support. When programs like College Work Study and Pell Grants were enacted in the 1960's, there was widespread support for increased funding for our nations schools. That support needs to be reignited. Business leaders, political leadership, parents, civil society and labor leaders need to get on the same page. No issue is more important than reversing the proposed federal education cuts, and instead increasing federal support for the issue most directly connected to U.S. economic growth—increasing education achievement.

We can't wait to make the wise investments that are so vital to our nation’s success. The time to act is now.

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