Biden’s education secretary should look to inclusive approach advocated in Utah

March 30, 2023

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona recently criticized some education reform efforts as “deliberate attempts to make sure that our public schools are not functional so that the private option sounds better.” Here in Utah a few months ago, an advocate for school choice was recorded saying that she wanted to “destroy public education.” 

These polarized and polarizing approaches stand in stark contrast with the principled and inclusive approach to work, and by extension to the education that is at the foundation of employment, advocated last week at an event hosted by American Enterprise Institute and Sutherland Institute called the FREE Forum. Participants discussed the role of family, religion, education and entrepreneurship in upward mobility.

One panel discussed the dignity of work, highlighting the need to expand public thinking about the value of all types of work in society and educational pathways to them.

In discussing how to best talk about this shift, one panelist (Natalie Gochnour, director of the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute) said, “I’m worried that we’re sending some mixed messages about the value of a degree and that all work matters.” She explained that if the right words aren’t used in our messaging, we might end up affecting college completion rates for those already seeking a degree.

Her observation gets at the root of a truly pluralistic society – everyone is different, and a variety of careers and educational paths ought to be considered legitimate without cutting against each other.  

This means that it may be harmful to some to oversell the professional path that begins with a college degree. A better message for educational and economic leaders is to throw open to students the possibility of all options, increase their access to understanding the pros and cons of each choice, and then let them navigate a life that makes sense for them.  

Reality tells us that education of all types can hold value. Depending on the career field, multiple academic paths can ultimately culminate in employable skills for work. For example, another panelist (Ally Isom, vice president at Clyde Companies) observed that people across the “spectrum of responsibilities” made valuable contributions during her recent work with those in construction services or products. These workers included entry-level high school graduates and those with doctorates in physics and engineering.

A genuine belief in the dignity of all work – and its corollary, the dignity of all educational pathways to work – means we do not need to devalue apprenticeships, college degrees, or field-specific credentials such as professional certificates. Instead, we ought to champion them all as options by giving people credible academic and economic information on each so they can make the best choice for themselves.

We’ve seen that parents nationwide are rethinking their K12 options, seeking public charter schools, private options, homeschooling and online schooling in significant numbers. States across the nation have passed or are moving to enact universal education choice programs. Still, education advocates would be remiss in not acknowledging that district public schools remain the choice for the lion’s share of American students. The principle remains: More options, not fewer, help families and students reach their potential.

Furthermore, education leaders, including those in Utah, have been doing more in recent years to increase visibility of career pathways in the aerospace and tech industries. Pathways, in fact, are often structured such that students can earn college credit as they acquire credentials so they can transition to a degree-seeking path if they choose. The message here is also clear: Education is valuable on many tracks. The delivery of knowledge need not be structured to restrict the learner to either this path or that path.

Valuing all types of work starts with honoring all types of education by increasing options. This requires policymakers in public debates to take care in how they speak about options, so as to avoid stigmatizing public schools, homeschooling or other choices as they seek to promote another choice. But valuing all types of work includes other policy reforms. As John Bailey, senior fellow at AEI, said during the panel, “This is where again occupation licensing reform can be really impactful and purposeful.” States can do more to reduce unnecessary restrictions so that more qualified individuals can work in fields if they can show proficiency or appropriate credentials.

As a state, Utah has already made strides in many of these areas, but there is always improvement to be made. Margaret Woolley Busse, executive director of the Utah Department of Commerce, another panelist, said it well: “We do need to do a better job of honoring all kinds of work, and all different kinds of career pathways, and education types.” This will require a paradigm shift that embraces the pluralism in our society by promoting in public policy and respecting in our rhetoric the diversity of educational and economic needs, interests, skills and pathways.

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