3 education issues for newly elected officials to focus on

Written by Christine Cooke

November 9, 2020

Now that Election Day has come and gone – though some races are still yet to be determined – let’s turn our attention to the important education issues that our policymakers-to-be ought to focus on. Three of those issues should be (1) civics and history education, (2) educational options, and (3) flexibility in public schools.

Civics education

Civics education is the hot-button education reform of the year 2020, next to responses to COVID-19 school shutdowns. Newly elected officials with jurisdiction in education will inevitably face this topic.

Attention on America’s origin story and the civil unrest in many of the nation’s major cities has prompted Americans to ask how we got to a place where the nation is suddenly so unsure of its identity and so ready for violence. Many are asking what’s happening – or not happening – in our schools and at our dinner tables. And people are likely to take these concerns to their representatives where they haven’t already.

Elected officials – and everyone else for that matter – should consider that the Founders believed one of the primary objectives of education should be to teach our unique form of government and thereby preserve the republic.

Policymakers ought to be aware of the historical trajectory that led us away from the Founders’ aspirational vision of education to a growing emphasis on standardized “social studies” where civics plays a minor role. Or the shift toward a national focus on math and reading (No Child Left Behind) as well as national emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) at the expense of social studies, history and civics education.

Now, as society shows a growing affinity for Marxism and civil unrest, policymakers and other influencers are being forced to look at history and civics education again. 

Nationally, the 1619 Project was the recipient of severe criticism for its inaccuracies, and in September the Trump administration created the 1776 Commission to help encourage patriotic education in schools. In Utah, our legislators passed a civics engagement project pilot program and revisited the civics test graduation requirement. And more proposals will inevitably come.

If we are to return to a paradigm that focuses education on civic preparation, we will need a STEM-like effort to put “complete, accurate and sequential history and civics” education into our public schools. New policymakers will be in a position to help do just that.

Choice for families

Options in education have proliferated this year, mostly out of necessity. Because of COVID-19 pandemic school shutdowns, it no longer makes sense to talk about “education choice” as a code synonymous with vouchers: It’s a reality that’s grown out of the unpredictability of schools shutting down and opening up again.

Parents have simply made new choices – as evidenced by a drop in school enrollment – pursuing open enrollment in school districts that better suit their needs, enrolling more in online charter schools, trying their hand at homeschooling, and even creating pandemic pods with neighbors. 

Utah will need to continue to catch up to these realities. And in fact, with the passage of the Special Needs Scholarship during the 2020 session, more Utahns may be ready to ask for more.

Utah policymakers will need to be ready to respond to this demand, possibly by expanding existing special needs scholarships, creating new scholarships for other categories of students, or once again increasing enrollment caps for online charter schools. 

Flexibility within public schools

In fact, it’s not just choice among schools that has sprung from the pandemic, but a need for innovations and flexibility within schools. The ebbs and flows of shutdowns have left parents, educators and students to demonstrate grace and create exceptions when necessary. 

Policymakers will need to follow suit. The more willing they are to build flexibility into the education policies they try to enact, the better polices they will make.

And even though traditional schools have already largely moved online, Utah will need to continue to think through funding for fluctuation in enrollment, teacher training for the new digital landscape, modified parent-school communications, evolving safety regulations for the classroom and more.

If we’ve learned anything from 2020, it’s that there is no way to predict the future, and the same goes for what to expect in education policy. What will get thrown into the mix next year remains to be seen. However, it’s fairly certain that these topics will continue to challenge policymakers in upcoming months and it’s an exciting opportunity to be a part of it.

Congratulations to all those who won their races. Now it’s time to go to work.

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Education trends: To 2021 and beyond

Education trends: To 2021 and beyond

Year 2020 disrupted many things, including education. What is the future of education in 2021 and beyond? Ian Rowe, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, spoke about some of today’s most timely education issues at a Sutherland Institute event. Here are three important takeaways from his remarks.

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