John B. Cary Elementary in Richmond. (Mechelle Henkerson / Virginia Mercury)
By Jonathan Becker
As summer recedes and we head into fall, a new school year begins. Students, faculty and staff head back into schools and classrooms with hope and an understandable bit of trepidation. Fall is also a time when Virginia legislators craft their agendas and plan to pre-file bills for the next legislative session. Thus, it is worth thinking about how education and public policy might overlap in the coming year.
The polarized political environment with which our nation struggles has enveloped our educational system, with good and bad consequences. On the one hand, more (small d) democracy is good; on the other hand, the tone of the debates has not been helpful to the system.
That said, it is clear that during the pandemic most Americans came to recognize the importance of our public schooling system and its many connections to our economic system and our collective well being. We need our schools, for many reasons, and we need for them to be great.
Therefore, as we look back at the last two-plus years of the pandemic, we should think about an educational policy agenda that is informed by what we learned or (re)discovered during an exceedingly difficult time. Furthermore, there are some areas of educational policy where bipartisanship could and should prevail. Consider just the following:
School facilities modernization. A deadly airborne virus should have taught us to consider the environmental quality of the spaces in which we live, work and learn. Too many school buildings were unhealthy environments prior to the pandemic, and the virus held up a mirror to this reality.
Some school divisions have used COVID relief funds to upgrade HVAC systems, and that is a good start. We should also think about density and how people move through our school buildings as well as opportunities for students to learn in fresh air settings.
We have allowed too many school buildings in Virginia to become too old and obsolete; that bill will come due sooner than later. We need to seriously develop a long-term state and local initiative around building new, modern school facilities in which students, faculty and staff can be proud and safe to work and learn.
Teacher pay. Many school divisions were struggling with faculty and staff attrition prior to the pandemic, and it has only become more difficult. A pernicious (and gendered) narrative that we have allowed to persist is that teachers aren’t “in it for the money.” Certainly, many teachers feel called to the profession, but we are all humans who make rational cost-benefit calculations. At some point, working in unhealthy, high-pressure environments is simply not worth the benefits.
According to a recent NEA report, Virginia ranks 25th nationally in average teacher salaries and 18th in the nation for starting teacher salaries. We can and should do better. Fortunately, Governor Youngkin campaigned on improving teacher salaries, and we should all agree to work together to make that happen.
Early childhood education. The pandemic was particularly difficult for parents of our youngest children. Preschools and child care centers had to close and were not conducive to any kind of remote learning or supervision. This was detrimental to parents professionally and to many workplaces that found themselves without workers. It was most certainly not good for the kids.
Frankly, we have never invested in a system of high-quality, universal early childhood education, despite its obvious benefits for human and economic development. If we are truly committed to investing in the growth and development of young people in Virginia, we should take advantage of the clear return on investment from high-quality early childhood education.
Virtual learning. The research on the relationship between K-12 virtual learning and student achievement prior to the pandemic consistently showed negative effects. And during the pandemic, many students struggled to learn from a distance. Yet many families realized that their children might be better off learning from a distance, largely for physical and mental health reasons.
Additionally, educational leaders now recognize the need to be flexible and prepared should we be faced with additional health or climate emergencies. Demand for virtual learning opportunities is higher than pre-pandemic, and many school divisions have maintained virtual schooling options.
If we are to achieve student success for ALL students, then, we must ensure that virtual schooling is offered in a way that is cost effective. Local control of schools has value for traditional schooling, but in the virtual realm, we might be able to achieve cost efficiencies by thinking regionally and statewide. Virtual Virginia has been a great option for many students (and teachers) for many years, and we should think about how we might integrate it with regional virtual schooling endeavors instead of having every school division running its own virtual school(s).
These are just a few of the educational policy issues around which there really should be bipartisan support in the commonwealth of Virginia. At a time when it feels like we, as a nation or a commonwealth, cannot agree on anything, let us consider that we do, in fact, have some common policy goals in education.
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