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  • Writer's pictureEi Ei Samai

What I would do if I were Education Secretary

In a recent discussion about vouchers and privatization of education, a question was tossed: What would you do if you were the Secretary of Education? As a professional who has devoted 15+ years to the broader idea of education alongside the subcategory of schooling, this was a stimulating prompt. After chewing on it for some days, here are my humble answers. (Disclaimer: These are my personal opinions and do not reflect those of the organizations I represent professionally.)

1. Fund Family Engagement

In summer 2014, the Kellogg Foundation held a White House Symposium on the topic. These are some of the research findings they presented: a higher percentage of Black and Latino parents believe being involved is important but don't feel welcome and an astounding 46% of US parents report lack of time being an obstacle. (If you're reading this and wondering exactly what it means to welcome, involve, engage, and organize families at school, hit me up because I have tons of tips, tricks, and resources I can share, including how to use cultural humility and restorative practices to build a culture of authentic, power-conscious home-school partnership.)

2. Look at Economics and Education together

Our economic equations need to change in order for our educational outcomes to change. A study by the National Low Income Housing Coalition found that in the Bay Area "61%... spent more than the recommended 30% of their income on housing costs (mortgage or rent, utilities and property taxes). About one in four (26%) said they spent half or more of their family income on housing." It's been a few years since the report so I'm certain the situation is more dire.

How does that affect educational outcomes? In my daily work, I come across too many stories of double, triple occupied homes; a whole family squished into a single room sharing a bathroom with other families doing the same thing; no adult supervision before or after school for safety, much less homework; kids coming to school hungry; and many more situations that make it nearly impossible for a kid to get to school on time having eaten breakfast and having done their homework.

Both the income and the expense sides of our nation's economics need solutions. I would look at the community our students are growing up in and invest in local economic development projects, environmental justice projects, and the like. For those of you that need evidence, check out Harvard's big data study on The Impacts of Neighborhoods on Intergenerational Mobility.

Actually, this New York Times article by Justin Wolfers that breaks down the study is much more engaging: "Sociologists have typically been quicker than economists to embrace the idea that neighborhoods are important. But the relentless accumulation of evidence is now so compelling that I believe it will sustain a new consensus. That consensus, simply stated, is that place matters. This puts the issue of fixing our failing neighborhoods squarely on the political agenda." Combine that research with Majora Carter's saying, "You don't have to move to live in a better neighborhood," and we may be able to design place-based success no matter the state, county, or hood our kids are schooling in.

3. Invest in Early Childhood Education

Perhaps I'm biased because of my current job and the bright-eyed age of my son, but early childhood education is critical. The ROI is huge on ECE. Northern European countries have long held the top ten spots in education globally because of their economic policies and their investment in ECE.

According to trusty Wikipedia, "In Finland, high quality daycare and nursery-kindergarten are considered critical for developing the cooperation and communication skills necessary to prepare young children for lifelong education, as well as formal learning of reading and mathematics. This preparatory period lasts until the age of 7. 'Finnish early childhood education emphasizes respect for each child’s individuality and chance for each child to develop as a unique person. Finnish early educators also guide children in the development of social and interactive skills, encourage them to pay attention to other people’s needs and interests, to care about others, and to have a positive attitude toward other people, other cultures, and different environments. The purpose of gradually providing opportunities for increased independence is to enable all children to take care of themselves as “becoming adults, to be capable of making responsible decisions, to participate productively in society as an active citizen, and to take care of other people who will need his [or her] help.'”

4. Universal Childcare

Speaking of Finland, here's an expense side solution that can help the income side: Universal Childcare. The US came so so SO close to universal childcare at one time in history. The Comprehensive Child Development Bill of 1972 passed through Congress unanimously and was then vetoed by Nixon, who was under pressure from a conservative group. There's an excellent documentary you can watch called Once Upon A Time that goes into details about the politics of the veto and what it might have meant for all US families to be able to opt into quality childcare the way that our members of the Armed Services currently have.

I would bring that back because as Obama once said, “It’s time we stop treating childcare as a side issue, or a women’s issue, and treat it like the national economic priority that it is for all of us,” For some stats, check out the Economic Policy Institute's state-by-state info on childcare costs.

5. I'll end with 2 words: Community Schools.

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