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This Could Have Been The Year Of The Education Voter 

We live in a nation where 54 percent of adults read at or below a 6th grade level and 66 percent of 4th graders are not reading proficient. Nearly 30 percent of Americans scored in the lowest percentile of numeracy and 24 percent lacked basic digital problem solving abilities. When 44 percent of Americans could not name all three branches of government, you begin to understand why our politics are so volatile and our governance structures so fragile. Close to 20 percent of Black students and 37 percent of Hispanic students are unable to achieve a high school diploma or GED.  And while 75 percent of white students earn regular diplomas, only half of Black students do.   

Our K-12 education system never really functioned, fully, the way an education system should. The impact of that dysfunction has always harmed students of color – especially Black students – the worst.  And, yet, when the pandemic (as devastating as it was) offered us an opportunity to finally re-envision education and pathways to achievement, we refused to take it.  There was a moment, for example, when we could have paused to truly understand the benefits of an actual structured virtual learning environment (such as successful equity-centered virtual academy platforms already developed) versus being stuck in hastily thrown together emergency online classrooms. Knowing that Black youth had always been targets, long before pandemic, in racist school systems, communities and policymakers could have marshaled resources in a coalesced effort to craft new innovations, use new technology and design bold new models centered in anti-racist thinking.   

We failed. As a result, our young people are scarred by learning loss, teacher shortages, and infrastructure failures at a time when creative public policy and sustained investments are needed the most.  

We cannot piece our children’s and our nation’s futures together with bubblegum and popsicle sticks. Communities must meet the moment.  We must confront, once and for all, the inequities that riddle our education system, and transform our schools from being merely workforce development centers for an industrialized nation into being the foundations of leadership in an uncertain digital and climate crisis age.   

Nations can’t thrive, let alone lead on the global stage, if their workforce is uneducated and under-supported. So, imagine when individual communities within a nation are just as burdened by lack of reading, math and science skills. That is a recipe for collapse. Young people must be technically and civically literate if they are to support and build a highly advanced, prosperous and fully democratic society.  Racial and social justice can’t be achieved if Black, brown and indigenous students remain over punished and placed on a direct path from classroom to incarceration.  

Yet, with so much on the line, recent polling shows education rarely named in the top five issues – it it’s named at all. The most recent Economist/YouGov poll showed education barely making it in the Top 10; the HIT Strategies poll of Black voters doesn’t even show it listed. Not only do education voters struggle to get education issues on the political map, but voters concerned with other issues fail to see the role that education plays in their calls to action. As a result, we missed an opportunity to retrofit and revitalize our K-12 education system through pandemic. 

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, only 45 percent of public schools are providing home internet access to students who need it this year.  This number is down from 70 percent during the pandemic closures.  One year into the pandemic, one in four low-income families did not have broadband access at home, and now close to one-quarter of high school students say they can’t complete their homework because of a lack of broadband access.  

A national education focus would have meant that this election year was about choosing legislators who would ensure that all students have equal access to a digitally competent education.  To accomplish that we should have been mobilized as true education voters partnering with friends and families who want the full expansion of broadband as an essential pillar of national progress.   

There are too many students who don’t have access to safe playgrounds, libraries, computer labs, functioning bathrooms, clean air, temperature maintenance systems, and clean water. It would cost an estimated $1.1 trillion over 10 years, or just over $100 billion per year, to fully upgrade and modernize school buildings across America. Shouldn’t we elect legislators who will ensure school buildings are viewed as critical infrastructure and that their renovation and maintenance is fully funded and implemented? To do that, we need to vote and mobilize others who are concerned about our national infrastructure to join us.    

There are too many Black, brown and indigenous students being punished and pushed out of the school system because of the color of their skin.  We then need to confront racism in our school systems and create a culturally competent education workforce.  So, shouldn’t we elect policymakers who will create programs, pass policies, and recruit staff that are both sensitive to and proactively supportive of students navigating the challenges of racial inequity in this nation?  To do that, we need to mobilize our friends, families, and community members who are concerned about equality and justice to join us when we cast our ballots.    

As education voters, we understand that there is no part of our lives that isn’t touched by education. It is our job to help communities understand that if they want to see changes in the economy, they must first see changes in the K-12 education system. To achieve justice and equality, we need to advance achievement in our education system.  And anyone who believes in democracy also cannot maintain it or defend it … if our students leave school without knowing exactly what democracy is or how it functions.  

We should be education mobilizers creating agile, smart and fully equitable education models that make all of our youth above proficient in reading, math and science. That’s the true national education debate we’ve been missing. When we show up to the polls for education, we are showing up for our children, our families, our communities, and our nation.  We must vote for our young people, and we must bring our friends, families, and community members with us in the process. Once we do, there is no limit to the progress we can make and a better future we can see.  

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ANGELA WILLIAMS is a former Colorado State Senator and graduate of the National Organization of Black Elected Women (NOBEL) Institute.

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