Chiefs for Change CEO Mike Magee today sent the following letter to President-elect Joe Biden.
Dear President-elect Biden,
As CEO of Chiefs for Change, a bipartisan network of school superintendents and state education chiefs serving more than 7 million students, I’m writing to congratulate you on your election and to pledge the network’s partnership in working to strengthen our nation and expand opportunities for all of America’s children. I know you and Dr. Biden care deeply about students. You spearheaded efforts that created new programs to help young people succeed in the global economy and have made schools safer places for children to learn and grow. Furthermore, you understand, perhaps better than any president, the difference that teachers make—every day—in their students’ lives. Never before has our nation had a First Lady who continues to teach while in the White House. Chiefs for Change is eager to work with you, and I’d like to offer our perspective on how your administration can help ensure every child receives an excellent education.
In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, we released a report called The Return clarifying the ways that schools would need to change to support children both during the crisis and well into the future. We focused on four key areas: the use of time; the roles of adults; the quality of academic content; and the social, emotional, and mental health supports available to students. On December 2, Chiefs for Change members will gather for their annual meeting to discuss how best to lead America’s schools into the future. As bold new ideas emerge from that event, I look forward to sharing them.
It is, of course, impossible to advance strategies for improving education today without addressing the unprecedented needs brought on or exacerbated by the pandemic. For that reason, during your first 100 days in office I implore you to:
Deliver emergency relief aid to schools commensurate with the challenges they face. The $13.5 billion in federal aid for K-12 systems approved in spring 2020 is woefully insufficient. By comparison, under your leadership the Obama-Biden Administration worked to mitigate the impacts of the Great Recession with a stimulus package that included roughly $100 billion for education. While the full extent of the economic damage caused by the pandemic is not yet known, the consequences are likely to exceed any our nation has ever seen. K-12 systems do not have the resources they need to support students, families, and schools struggling to cope with the wide-ranging effects of COVID-19. With high unemployment and cratering property and sales tax revenues, school systems are bracing for deep cuts: Some districts within the Chiefs for Change membership project losing nearly a quarter of their net operating budgets. Although it is impossible to eliminate the harm of such devastating cuts without additional federal assistance, our chiefs are doing everything they can: Members have renegotiated contracts; curtailed overtime and travel; implemented staffing caps; and enforced a freeze on discretionary spending and hiring. Even as budgets are slashed, unforeseen expenses continue to mount. Schools need funding for personal protective equipment; essential mental health services; programs to address learning loss and accelerate student progress; and robust COVID-19 testing and contact tracing.
Provide universal broadband to close the digital divide once and for all. Nearly 17 million students do not have high-speed internet. The problem disproportionately affects children of color, those from low-income families, and students who are already behind in their learning. As the pandemic wears on, some students have returned to face-to-face instruction, while millions more are still attending virtual classes. In the absence of federal leadership, Chiefs for Change members and their teams are pursuing plans to get students online at home. These localized efforts are important. Yet without a holistic solution, America could end up with a patchwork of initiatives that offer varying degrees of access at best, and that perpetuate historical inequities and threaten the nation’s collective prosperity at worst. There is bipartisan agreement on the need to expand broadband. Many have proposed good ideas, including using E-Rate funds, typically reserved for schools and libraries, to cover technology and connectivity in students’ homes. Yet Democrats and Republicans have not coalesced around specific plans. As a leader focused on bringing people together, I urge you to work with Congress, internet service providers, and others to deliver the internet to every home.
In addition to providing immediate and significant relief for schools and connecting all students, I encourage your administration to do the following:
Build reliable and affordable postsecondary pathways. You and Dr. Biden have long championed postsecondary education and recognize that it is the key to economic self-sufficiency for many of our nation’s young people. By and large, however, K-12 schools, colleges, and universities must do a much better job of preparing all students—especially disadvantaged students—for success after high school. I encourage you to support initiatives that enable K-12 systems to track postsecondary and workforce outcomes and to use that data in designing more effective schools and programs. In addition, I urge your administration to make higher education more affordable by expanding access to rigorous, college-level coursework for high school students; supporting competency based pathways to associate’s and bachelor’s degrees; funding college and career counseling programs; and simplifying the application for federal student aid. In the area of career and technical education (CTE), as vice president you played an instrumental role in the reauthorization of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act. I encourage your administration to continue modernizing CTE by supporting high-quality programs that give students opportunities to earn certificates and credentials valued by employers in high-growth, high-demand fields.
Give all children access to excellent schools. Chiefs for Change shares your commitment to ensuring that all children—regardless of their ZIP code, parents’ income, race, or disability—have the knowledge and skills they need for tomorrow’s world. Families with means have always been able to decide where to send their child to school. Historical patterns of segregation in housing and schooling impede the educational pathways of millions of students to this day. The Obama-Biden Administration, through the federal Charter Schools, Magnet Schools, and School Improvement Grants programs—and with joint guidance from the Departments of Education and Justice—made it possible to open new public open-enrollment schools that transcended old “red-lined” neighborhood zones. As a result, many children from historically disadvantaged backgrounds have the type of educational options that were previously only available to their more affluent peers. Sound systems of public school choice provide assurances around quality, equitable access, and equitable funding while weaving together diverse neighborhoods. I ask you to invest in the federal Charter and Magnet Schools Programs with these assurances in mind to give more families the ability to choose the public school that is best for their child.
Advance practical, principled, and innovative approaches to verify student learning. Even amid the considerable challenges of the pandemic, America must maintain its commitment to effective accountability systems that help ensure our schools educate every child. These systems, in fact, are all the more important given concerns that students have fallen behind and the research showing children of color and those from low-income families experience greater setbacks during time away from school. We must know where each child is in their academic, social, and emotional learning, and we must give that information to schools and teachers so they can use it to guide their instructional practice and other student supports. Government’s ongoing approach to assessment should be continuously informed by the best available research. Evidence and new measures—such as those of school climate and postsecondary pathways—should be used to enhance, rather than obfuscate, our understanding of student need and student success.
Elevate the teaching profession. Given Dr. Biden’s decades-long career in the classroom, you already know that nothing at school matters more to student learning than a great teacher. Yet America’s approach to preparing and supporting our educators is outdated and inadequate. We must ensure teachers are treated as professionals, not merely technicians. I ask your administration to support innovative, effective strategies to improve teacher training and development. These include residency programs that give aspiring teachers a full year of practice under an expert mentor and incorporate a competency based program design. Such programs allow teachers to practice their craft in a real-world environment, gain fluency in the curriculum and tools they will actually use, and receive guidance from veteran educators. We must also commit more deeply to diversity in teaching as well as in school and system leadership. The Teacher and School Leader Incentive Program can be one effective tool for developing a pipeline of diverse and highly effective teachers and leaders for our highest-need schools. It should be expanded. To provide just one troubling example, only 11 percent of our nation’s education leaders are women of color. Lastly, the nation’s best education leaders are thinking not only about what an individual classroom teacher needs to know and do in order to be successful, but how a team of adults can support the whole child. To that end, I encourage you to consider the role AmeriCorps could play in student mentoring, learning acceleration, and other supports, while also contributing to a more diverse workforce in schools.
Create welcoming schools for all. The Obama-Biden Administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) Program has protected children, teachers, and other workers from deportation, and has given them opportunities to attend college, find jobs, and contribute to our great nation. DACA provides important protections, but recent federal action, including separating children from their parents at the United States-Mexico border, has led to a culture of fear in some parts of our country: Student attendance rates have dropped, and immigrant families are less likely to engage with their child’s school. To ensure that schools are safe and welcoming places for all, I urge you to work with Congress and enact comprehensive, bipartisan immigration reform.
You enter the White House at a challenging time in our nation’s history. The incidents of racist violence, civil unrest in our streets, a pandemic that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, and an economy reeling from the chaos are exacting an enormous toll. But Americans are resilient. We are optimists. And our children give us hope. Please, unite our country around them. Lead courageously through this dark moment, and let’s build the future they deserve.