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How Restructured Public Education Could Better Serve Everyone

Our current system fails to prepare too many students for the competencies that are needed in today's and tomorrow's workplace. We need to rethink our approach to funding, curricula and governance.

students at computers
Shutterstock/Monkey Business Images
This year's presidential election has sparked renewed debate over how to fix public education. Politicians and educators have discussed solutions ranging from making public higher education free to canceling all student debt, privatizing public education or allowing more liberal use of private-school vouchers. These issues and proposals are interesting and important, but they all miss a very important point: Public education, as we know it today, is in need of major restructuring.

As the former president of a public technical college, I have experienced firsthand the successes and failures of our public K-12 education systems, both traditional and charters, to prepare students for work or college. This is a system where too many students, particularly from underserved neighborhoods, drop out prior to earning a diploma. At my college, the GED program was as large as our technical-skills credit programs. In 2017, according to a new report from the National Center for Educational Statistics, 2.1 million students between the ages of 16 and 24 had dropped out; the overall dropout rate was 5.4 percent. About 25 percent of high-school freshmen fail to graduate from high school on time.

Restructuring public education might not solve all of its problems, but it could provide the clean slate needed for a new beginning.

Any restructuring effort must start with getting the funding right, which means tackling an outdated model based on real-estate values. Pockets of poverty and low levels of homeownership in many urban and rural communities result in lower property-tax revenues. But the challenges of educating students from underserved communities require more, not less, financial and human resources. There needs to be substantial commitment to collaborate on developing new funding models that will provide greater equity.

The new structure I propose encompasses free public education for pre-K through two years of college. This debt-free model would allow 16 years for students to earn high-school diplomas and two-year degrees or technical certificates from community or technical colleges — industry-recognized credentials that will make students more marketable for high-demand jobs like welding, nursing, commercial truck driving and logistics management.

Back in 2013, Georgetown University's Center for Education and the Workforce predicted that by this year, 65 percent of all jobs would require education beyond high school. But while less than half of high-school graduates go on to enroll in a four-year college or university, the bulk of the curricula of public high schools is geared toward these students. This must change to align educational content with the competencies needed in today's and tomorrow's workplace. In addition to a college-preparatory track, this new system must offer the skills that industry increasingly demands. Perhaps more students would do better in math if teachers taught it in context, such as from the perspective of an auto mechanic who reads a sophisticated car computer to ascertain why a check-engine light keeps coming on.

Creating a new 21st-century educational system also requires pedagogical changes like making computing, writing, problem-solving and critical thinking a greater part of learning. The public and private sectors also need employees who work cooperatively in groups and generate creative ideas. That calls for more of an emphasis on the "soft skills" that enable workers to thrive within diverse work environments.

Beyond funding and curricula, a restructured public education system requires steady, effective, inclusive governance. In the present system, jurisdictional battles between school boards and local and state governments are pervasive. Four years ago in Georgia, for example, then-Gov. Nathan Deal attempted to amend the state constitution to allow the state to take over failing public schools. Local school boards put up a major fight, and the amendment was defeated. Nonetheless, the governor persuaded the legislature to set up a school turnaround office and hired a turnaround czar. But the current governor, Brian Kemp, is lukewarm to this office, and its fate is uncertain.

The last thing public-school governance needs is that kind of turmoil and disruption. The new structure I propose would be cross-jurisdictional and inclusive, administered by a board composed of state and local officials, parents, teachers and students. This would make the education of students a collaborative process, instead of a competitive and political one.

The future of our economy and our communities depends on a well-educated and qualified workforce. A quarter of our students will earn degrees at four-year higher-education institutions, and most will do well. We need to restructure public education to ensure that the remaining three-quarters, whose talents are often overlooked, can earn sustainable wages for their families and contribute to our economy not only for the benefit of industry but also, more importantly, for the good of our society.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing editors or management.

Government and education columnist
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