A Quality Education for Every Child

Introduction and summary

There is no question that education is a powerful driver of prosperity. Americans with college degrees earn 117 percent more a year than those who do not complete high school.1 Based on data for the high school class of 2015, raising the nation’s high school graduation rate from 83 percent to 90 percent would result in an additional $3.1 billion in earnings for each high school cohort, which would translate into a $5.7 billion increase in gross domestic product.2 Moreover, Americans with higher levels of education are more likely to vote,3 to volunteer,4 and to donate to charity.5

But on the whole, the results of the U.S. education system are not where they need to be. Between 2000 and 2017, the United States slipped from fifth to 10th among Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries in its rate of postsecondary degree attainment.6 America’s 13-year-olds continue to languish in the middle of the pack internationally in math and science achievement. After some hopeful progress in the early 2000s, results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) have stagnated in both reading and math.7 Even more alarming, the nation continues to see the effect of systemic and structural barriers to opportunity for Black,8 Latinx, Native American, and some Asian American and Pacific Islander children, not to mention the ongoing segregation and isolation of students from families with low incomes who are locked into under-resourced schools.9 Additionally, it is clear that students with disabilities, students who identify as LGBTQ, and students who are English language learners continue to grapple with added barriers to accessing a quality education.

As the 2020 elections near, the conversation about how to change the direction of the country will gain even more prominence—on education, as well as the many other critical issues Americans are facing. More and more candidates for national office are presenting ideas for how to increase access to high-quality early childhood education and how to make higher education more accessible and affordable. And yet, with a few prominent exceptions, presidential candidates have not yet taken clear positions or staked out big ideas on how to ensure that every child has an excellent school.10 Elementary and secondary schools are where students learn to read, write, do math, and develop the skills, knowledge, and abilities that will make them successful lifelong learners and full participants in U.S. democracy.

What’s more, the public wants a focus on education. In the 2018 midterm elections, it was the second-most frequent topic of campaign ads for governors, with candidates vying to be their state’s “pro-education governor.”11 This year, education ranks third among voters’ top priorities for the president and Congress.12

Although K-12 education historically has not been a driving force in national elections, the nation is in a unique moment in time. Teacher protests and strikes over the past year have catalyzed increased public support for both teachers and for funding public education more broadly.13 Across the country, people are recognizing that after a decade of disinvestment following the Great Recession, the support that students, teachers, and schools need is simply not being provided—and the consequences are evident.

To be sure, part of national policymakers’ hesitation to address K-12 education stems from America’s long tradition of state and local control of schooling, which can be a barrier to the federal government—and the president—becoming highly involved in education. But the federal government has a critical role to play in creating the conditions for equitable access to educational opportunity for every child, regardless of their background.

States and school districts alone simply cannot achieve the goal of providing every student with a high-quality school. The nation’s current system has led to enormous gaps in the resources provided to students based on geography, income, and race. The difference in spending across states is massive, even accounting for varying levels of poverty, regional wages, and other factors. For example, New York spends more than $12,400 more per student than Idaho.14 Only 11 states fund education progressively, by providing more resources to the school districts with the highest levels of poverty. In the rest of the country, the students who need the most actually get the least.15 Even today, local communities are seceding from their larger school districts and exacerbating segregation.16 Unfortunately, U.S. history shows that without a strong federal role, it is all too easy for states and local school districts to perpetuate structural inequality that has existed for generations.

It is also important for future administrations to understand and learn from the lessons of past efforts to reform K-12 education. Through the past several administrations—both Democratic and Republican—there was a general consensus on the key elements of education reform. These elements included standards-based accountability for schools, teacher evaluations based partly on student learning, and the expansion of public school choice options. At the federal and state levels, policymakers and advocates—including the Center for American Progress—pushed for major changes to the education system based on these ideas.

However, over the past few years, these efforts—though in many cases clearly necessary—were proven insufficient. First, despite evidence that standards-based accountability led to modest improvements, these reforms have not led to progress at the pace needed to give every student a fair shot at success in college and career.17 Second, parents and teachers have not seen clear positive impacts from these systemwide reform efforts and, in many cases, have only seen the negative impacts of overtesting,18 narrowing of curriculum,19 frustrated teachers,20 and state disinvestment in education that stretched far beyond the recession.21 What’s more, in too many places, there has been limited input from and engagement with affected communities during the development and implementation of reforms.22

With these lessons in mind, a new education agenda must be rooted in the idea of opportunity for all, with equity in access at the center. This means developing policies in partnership with everyday people, with a lens on how these policies will affect students from historically underserved and under-resourced communities. The focus should be on ensuring that these students receive the greatest benefit, while keeping an eye on every child having a quality seat in public schools.

There is no silver bullet or single idea that will dramatically improve opportunities and outcomes for students, but there are ways that federal policymakers—including the next presidential administration—can take action and set a new agenda for K-12 education. This agenda should focus on five key components:

  1. Applying an explicit race equity lens to policy development
  2. Preparing all students for college and the future workforce
  3. Modernizing and elevating the teaching profession
  4. Dramatically increasing investments in public schools and improving the equity of existing investments
  5. Bringing a balanced approach to charter school policy

This report, in turn, takes a detailed look at each of these components.

Applying an explicit race equity lens to policy development

Education | UNICEF

K-12 education reform has long focused on policies that will improve outcomes for students who are underserved and historically disadvantaged. Now more than ever, it is critical for progressive policy to support the students and families that have been denied opportunity in this country. In particular, policymakers, researchers, and advocates should intentionally apply an explicit race and resource equity lens to all policies and analysis. This means specifically looking at potential impacts on communities that do not identify as white or that have large concentrations of families with low incomes, without conflating the two.

The goal is to forge a path where equity is not merely a trendy concept, but rather one centered in all education policymaking and practice, and where institutional racism is called out as a barrier to forward progress and appropriately addressed. Fortunately, during the current presidential election cycle, there has been an uptick of serious discussion about the debt that the U.S. government owes citizens who continue to face obstacles to achieving the American dream as a result of the lasting effects of enslavement.23 From enacting slave codes to relegating Black residents to particular ZIP codes, American institutions and social networks have denied Black people the basic human right to education and a host of other opportunities—including home ownership, jobs, and voting access—through policy and practice.24 The results show up as a persistent gap in achievement,25 troubling gaps in school discipline,26 and ongoing gaps in college access and completion,27 all of which ultimately result in a wealth gap that will take more than 100 years to close if nothing changes.28

Similar discouraging gaps are clearly evident for some ethnicities of American Asian and Pacific Islander and nonwhite Latinx students.29 And for Native American students, some of these gaps are even more troubling, as this group experiences stark gaps in achievement—the lowest graduation rates, the highest dropout rates, and troubling disparities in school discipline. Even worse, Native American young people experience a higher rate of suicide than any racial group in America.30 Schools operated by the federal Bureau of Indian Education are in unconscionable levels of disrepair. A 2016 report from the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Office of Inspector General documented “major facility deficiencies and health and safety concerns,” with structural concerns in 12 of the 13 visited schools, as well as five condemned buildings.31 These challenges exist against the backdrop of Native American students being descendants of genocide and having their native language and culture stripped away by government policy over centuries.

The current presidential administration’s attempts to eliminate tools put in place to disrupt deeply entrenched and persistent disparities in educational attainment offer additional evidence of the ongoing barriers placed in front of nonwhite American students.32 The data make clear how historic and systemic inequities in educational opportunity have created a debt that must be paid.33 And institutions of higher education are already taking the lead to make amends for past atrocities.34 For these reasons, a new administration must begin with a comprehensive strategy for addressing disparities in educational opportunity.

While some of these efforts will inherently benefit public school students of all races and incomes, creating policies targeted exclusively at repairing the ongoing harm to nonwhite students in America can also result in unrealized economic prosperity and mobility. Broad access to quality schools and greater educational opportunities, coupled with a comprehensive economic development strategy beyond the educational system, would unlock talent currently not realized within underserved communities.

Presidential leadership is needed to address persistent historic gaps in opportunity for nonwhite students

A new administration can take a number of specific actions to increase opportunity and to focus explicitly on racial equity. These include establishing a mechanism for filling the annual $23 billion gap in funding between predominantly white and predominantly nonwhite school districts;35 identifying and distributing $200 billion for school infrastructure to update crumbling and outdated school buildings;36 establishing a grant program to improve teacher preparation, recruitment, and ongoing professional development that fully incorporates culturally responsive pedagogy and acknowledges the new majority in public schools across America;37 and issuing guidance through the U.S. Department of Education to implement the Powell exception in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, which calls for the elimination of property tax-based school financing models that privilege wealthy and mostly white districts over predominantly nonwhite districts.38 In addition, a new administration can incentivize state education agencies to conduct deep racial equity audits, implement strategies to promptly address disparate racial impacts resulting from gaps in educational opportunity, and make transparent a framework for applying a race equity lens to future policy and programming decisions.

Preparing all students for college and the future workforce

Right to Education: Success or Failure? ~ Group Discussion Ideas

There is no doubt that the world of work is changing. Not only are many jobs of tomorrow radically different from the jobs of yesterday, but Americans can also expect to hold more jobs over the course of their careers, moving from job to job and even sector to sector with much more frequency.39 As a result, it is more important than ever for the education system to provide every child with the skills and knowledge needed to be successful in a wide range of occupations.

Unfortunately, despite increases over the past decade, 15 percent of high school students who began high school in 2013 did not graduate within four years. Those numbers rise to 22 percent for Black students, 20 percent for Latinx students, and 22 percent for students from families with low incomes.40 With few good jobs available for individuals without a high school diploma, these young adults can expect to earn only $27,040 a year, compared with $60,996 for college graduates.41 Even for those students who do graduate from high school, earning a high school diploma does not necessarily mean that they are truly prepared for either postsecondary education or the workforce.

Improvements in the rigor and quality of states’ academic standards over the past decade have been an important step. But these improvements have not yet fully translated to high school graduation requirements. Prior CAP research found that only four states have high school diploma requirements that are fully aligned with the entrance requirements for their four-year state institutions of higher education. And only two of those states require a rigorous, 15-credit college ready curriculum, which includes four years of English, three years of math up to algebra II, three years of laboratory science, three years of social studies, and two years of the same foreign language.42

Career-readiness is even less of a focus: Only one state—Delaware—requires all students to complete a three-credit career and technical education pathway to earn a regular high school diploma. And only 8 percent of high school graduates take a college- and career-ready curriculum that includes both components.43 Research is clear that this preparation is critically important: Students that have both academic and workforce credentials are more likely to be employed and to have higher wages than other students, even when they do not go to college.44 New research from the Stanford Center for Education Policy Analysis found that after California school districts implemented career pathway programs, dropout rates in those districts declined by 23 percent.45

Too many students—particularly Black, Latinx, and Native American students, as well as students from families with low incomes—have limited access to advanced courses and dual enrollment opportunities.46 Even before students arrive in high school, opportunity gaps at the elementary and middle-school level mean that white fourth grade students are more than twice as likely as Black fourth grade students to be performing at grade level in math and reading.47 And for all students, the average student-to-counselor ratio is 482-to-1—nearly double the recommended ratio of 250-to-1—making it nearly impossible for students to get the additional guidance they need.48 With these barriers across the K-12 continuum, it is no wonder that only 56 percent of students from the lowest quintile of socio-economic status enroll in college.49 Among Pell Grant recipients, who are college students from families with low and moderate incomes, 55 percent require remedial coursework when they do enroll,50 and only 49 percent actually graduate from college.51

Give every student the opportunity to graduate high school with college credit and a meaningful workforce credential

A new federal-state-industry partnership would identify school models that provide both of these opportunities to all students and would bring these models to scale regionally and within states. To ensure that all students have access to new opportunities in high school, these models should focus heavily on the middle grades. This partnership would require states and industry partners to ensure that career and technical education programs reflect upcoming, well-paid, in-demand jobs in their region and that they address structural inequities to increase access to programs for students in the state who have historically been underserved and subsequently locked out of high-paying jobs. Building on their state’s college- and career-ready academic content standards, participating school districts could establish a K-12 ladder of course content supporting preparation for careers in the new economy. Districts would also strengthen family engagement and educator professional development, building awareness about the requirements for the future of work as early as kindergarten.

Modernizing and elevating the teaching profession

No education reform effort can be successful without teachers. Great teaching is at the core of all efforts to improve students’ learning and has the greatest impact for students who, due to poverty and structural racism, are the most likely to come to school already behind their peers academically—namely, nonwhite students and students from families with low incomes.52

Yet despite what is known about the importance of excellent teaching, the teaching profession has for too long been an afterthought. Teachers are underpaid and undervalued. Currently, too many teachers must learn on the job, sometimes without much support. Not by chance, the students who get the least experienced and least qualified teachers are most often nonwhite or from families with low incomes, worsening already existing inequities in these students’ access to a quality education.53

It does not have to be this way. In other careers, such as medicine and law, high expectations and selective and intensive training work together to create a profession that is highly respected and highly compensated. As has been true in other fields, unions should and must be a component of efforts to modernize the profession, particularly since research suggests that their negotiating power may be associated with not only higher salaries but also reduced teacher turnover and boosted student achievement.54

Unfortunately, teachers are notoriously underpaid.55 As the recent teacher strikes and walkouts brought to light, public school teachers make less than other comparable professionals in every state; in 2018, they earned 13.1 percent less on average, when accounting for nonwage benefits.56 Given their low wages, teachers are about 30 percent more likely than nonteachers to work a second job, and in many states, teachers earn so little that they qualify for public benefits.57 Compounding the problem, many teachers have to spend their own money on classroom supplies because public dollars fall short. For example, in the 2014-15 school year, 94 percent of teachers paid out of pocket for classroom supplies, with the average public school teacher spending $479.58

Moreover, the teaching profession is not highly selective, nor is it doing enough to recruit more diversity to the field.59 Compared with the United States, other countries with higher-performing educational systems tend to have more rigorous selection processes for admission into teacher preparation programs.60 In many states, the percentage of nonwhite students still substantially outnumbers the percentage of nonwhite teachers—and nonwhite teachers have low retention rates across the country.61

And yet, in recent years, expectations for teachers have risen. The job now requires getting all students—not just a small percentage, as was the status quo a generation ago—ready for college and career, which means that students need to meet challenging standards each year.62 In addition, expectations for how teachers serve their students have rightly been raised; they are expected to differentiate and adjust instruction for English language learners, special education students, and students who are behind or above grade level.63 The nation has underinvested in anti-poverty programs and put its faith in education as the “great equalizer,”64 which means that teachers are being asked to bear a significant portion of the responsibility to meet students’ basic needs, respond to trauma, and provide social and emotional learning.65

All of this is not lost on young people or their parents. For the first time, a majority of parents say that they do not want their kids to become teachers.66 Likewise, fewer high school students report that they are interested in teaching careers,67 and enrollment in teacher preparation programs is down by more than 30 percent since 2012.68

Comprehensive agenda to raise the prestige of teaching and improve teachers’ working conditions

If states and school districts raised teacher pay to match that of other professions, provided training to help teachers meet the needs of the changing student population, and increased the selectivity of the teaching profession, the national narrative about and respect for the teaching profession would shift. A comprehensive policy agenda to achieve this goal should be multifaceted and must ensure that teachers are given the necessary training and resources to meet a higher bar. Components of such an agenda should include efforts to be more purposeful about candidates accepted into teacher preparation programs, with an explicit emphasis on diversifying the teaching profession; improving teacher preparation programs to provide them with high-quality clinical training experience and more rigorous coursework designed to prepare them for modern classrooms; aligning requirements for licensure with candidates’ observable readiness to teach beyond multiple-choice exams; investing in supports for new teachers, such as high-quality induction and mentorship programs; providing dedicated time and support for meaningful professional development that improves student outcomes; and defining career pathways that give excellent teachers the opportunity to expand their effectiveness.

Dramatically increasing investment in the nation’s public schools

Following the Great Recession in 2008, most states responded to revenue drops by making large cuts to their education budgets.69 Schools depend on state funding for almost half of their revenue, but by 2015, only a handful of states had returned to pre-recession levels of spending.70 Today, that number is increasing, but nearly half of states are still below pre-recession levels.71 Some states even chose to cut taxes after the recession, which exacerbated budget constraints by reducing revenues even as the economy rebounded.72

Research shows that money matters in education. Student scores on the NAEP are correlated with cumulative per-pupil spending.73 Problems such as poor air quality and uncomfortable temperatures in schools can have negative effects on student learning74; a study from the Journal of Environmental Psychology even found that building conditions predicted academic outcomes.75 Still, more than half of U.S. public schools currently need repairs.76

Funding affects every aspect of an excellent, well-rounded education. More money means available funds for smaller class sizes,77 more rigorous course offerings,78 and additional support staff, such as mental health professionals,79 all of which have important consequences for student success and well-being. And these school features are especially important for students living in areas of concentrated poverty who may need additional support. For example, class size reduction typically has the largest positive effects for students who are Black or from families with low incomes.80

Unfortunately, there are both racial and socio-economic disparities in investment and opportunities. Despite serving the same number of students, school districts where more than 75 percent of students are nonwhite receive $23 billion less than districts where more than 75 percent of students are white.81 Reinvesting in schools continually results in more positive outcomes for disadvantaged students. Between 1990 and 2011, states that passed more equitable school finance reforms saw decreased gaps in NAEP scores between low-income and wealthier districts.82

Federal investment in education currently covers approximately 8 percent of public school revenues, and the amount of funding provided has not kept up with inflation over the past decade.83 Title I funds are not enough to create equity across districts or states,84 and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) remains underfunded.85 But with states and districts facing extreme inequities in funding—inequities that hurt the students who need education investment the most—it is time for progressives to fight for the funding that schools and students deserve.

Public education opportunity grants

Title I is the primary federal funding source for schools and school districts with high percentages of students from families with low-incomes.86 Years of political compromises and tweaking of the formula, however, have left funding for the program inequitable, underfunded, and too widely dispersed to make a meaningful difference in the schools it is designed to serve.87 Increasing Title I funding should be a priority, but a new administration should go further by creating new public education opportunity grants. To inform this approach, the federal government should appoint a commission to determine a specific set of critical education resources that are typically present in privileged communities but missing from historically disadvantaged schools and districts. These resources could include guidance counselors, school nurses, mental health professionals, art and music classes, or extracurricular enrichment opportunities—which would become available to all U.S. schools through the grants.

In exchange for new federal funding, states would need to ensure that districts serving high percentages of students from families with low incomes are providing the resources determined necessary by the aforementioned commission. States would also need to make changes to support these district efforts, such as adjusting state funding formulas to be more equitable.

Bringing a balanced approach to charter school policy

Charter schools have long been a contentious issue among progressives, and Secretary of Education Betsy Devos’ intense focus on expanding both private school vouchers and charters has likely increased that tension. Yet high-quality charter schools have been a critical strategy to increase opportunity and create more good seats for students. At the same time, some of the critiques of the charter sector do have merit. CAP has long argued that there is a progressive case for charters focused on growing and learning from successful models while addressing gaps in charter policy, such as the many problems with for-profit, virtual charter schools.88

There are currently slightly more than 7,000 charter schools across 44 states and Washington, D.C., that educate more than 3 million students, or 6 percent of public school enrollment.89 While the charter sector serves a small percentage of students nationwide, in some of the nation’s largest cities, it serves far more: from between 10 and 20 percent in New York, Chicago, Miami, and Houston to between 30 and 60 percent in Philadelphia, Detroit, and Washington, D.C. This growth has not been without controversy and opposition. Critiques include concerns about charters’ impact on traditional districts (for example, contributions to school closings, segregation, and budget cuts); resistance to supporting organized labor; gaps in charter policy that limit transparency and allow profit-seeking; lack of support for community-led models in favor of schools managed by larger entities responsible for multiple replicated schools; and claims of privatizing public education.

A review of charter school research reveals that many studies have found both negative and positive effects on student outcomes.90 Most, like a recent federal study on the long-term impacts of attending charter middle schools, find no effect.91 These mixed results are also driven by marked variability in the success of charter schools.92 Charter schools in rural or suburban areas typically have slightly negative effects, while charter schools in urban areas—especially those serving students of color and students from families with low incomes—tend to be more successful.93

In successful charter schools, there are significant effects on both short-term student outcomes—such as test scores94—and long-term outcomes, including graduation, college enrollment, and college persistence.95 And the effects can be especially pronounced for historically underserved students. In Boston, for example, a study found that one year in a charter school erases a third of the racial achievement gap.96

Research into charter schools’ effects on the finances and operations of traditional school districts highlights that charters have a short-term negative impact on economies of scale in districts, while over the medium term, they can lead to improvements in efficiency in district schools.97 One study of the effects of charter schools in New York City even showed that students at traditional district schools experienced the strongest positive achievement effects when a charter school was co-located in a building with the district school.98

High-quality charter schools as a strategy, not a goal

In too many places across the country, there are not enough good seats in schools, especially for Black, Latinx, and Native American students, as well as students from families with low incomes. A strong charter sector is a critical component to expanding the number of good public school seats, and high-quality charter schools are a valuable strategy to address that problem. But the growth of charter schools should not be an end in itself. A new administration should take a nuanced approach to charters that includes both the expansion of good school options and the coordination across the traditional district and charter sectors to avoid potentially negative impacts. This approach should include three key components. First, it should include strong authorizing and accountability policies for charter schools as well as efforts to proactively address the shortfalls of the sector. These efforts should include solutions for pain points, such as issues related to backfilling enrollment during the school year, providing service to students with disabilities, and maintaining transparency in financial operations—to name a few.

Second, the approach should apply a race equity lens to public school choice policies generally and charter schools specifically, with a focus on equitably expanding access to opportunities for underserved students. This means that decisions on where to locate schools and programs and how to make enrollment decisions—for example, boundaries, admissions requirements, and lottery rules—should be analyzed with a race equity lens.

Third, this approach should include a balanced assessment of potential charter growth and the impact on traditional districts. This assessment should always focus on how to increase the number of good seats for students but may imply different specific recommendations in different places and circumstances.


The current U.S. K-12 educational system should be an engine of opportunity that creates pathways to college, family-sustaining jobs, and the middle class for every student. While this is true for some, it is far from true for all. If America is ever to have a public school system that provides equitable access to these opportunities, everyone—parents, educators, policymakers, researchers, and advocates—must wrestle with hard truths. Making progress toward the goal of shared prosperity means looking at policies very explicitly through the lens of race and income equity. This work is critical to breaking down systematic, structural, and institutional barriers to opportunity.

Future presidential administrations must have a clear vision for policies that will benefit all Americans and provide pathways to opportunities. Certainly, addressing the needs of the current workforce is important, but national leaders must also consider the more than 50 million students in public schools who want to go to college or get a good job after they leave the K-12 system. It is time for a clear, robust K-12 education platform that applies an explicit race equity lens to all policies, prepares students for college and the future workforce, modernizes and elevates the teaching profession, dramatically increases the nation’s investment in education, and takes a balanced approach to opening and supporting charter schools to provide more good choices for families. Leaders at every level should focus on these priorities in order to enhance the quality of education for every single public school student.

WordPress SEO fine-tune by Meta SEO Pack from Poradnik Webmastera