The future US economy depends on a new bipartisan education agenda

Can U.S. leaders once again reach across party lines and solve the pressing problems facing Americans?

We believe the answer is an unequivocal “yes”.  A good place to start would be with our public education system.

As co-authors and research partners of a new report by a bipartisan group of 20 state legislators and leaders, we contend that the time is now to embrace a new vision of bipartisanship in education. The Time is Now report, produced with the National Conference of State Legislatures, the National Center on Education and the Economy and the Southern Regional Education Board, provides a blueprint for states to build the kind of future-ready education our nation will need to compete in the decades ahead.

The U.S. public education system no longer leads the world—far from it. Our high school graduates on average lag their international peers by multiple years of learning. Our state systems of education are not connected to the world of work to the same degree as those of many nations with which we compete economically. And our shared commitment to a flourishing democracy has been fractured, replaced with divergence and division.

We are convinced there is a better way. 

We are convinced the time is now to seize the moment of disruption, ask hard questions, make difficult decisions and put student outcomes first.

We are convinced the time is now for a shared, bipartisan vision in education.

We see that as inclusive of a shared understanding of 1) the kind of economy and society we want to build; 2) the skills, knowledge, and qualities our young people need to thrive in that society; and 3) the education system needed to get them there. As the report makes clear, the world’s best education systems already start from a common vision in this vein. We can do the same by focusing on four key areas.

First, focus on ensuring all teachers and education leaders are supported so they can be effective. That means every classroom has a well-prepared educator who is treated as a professional, with opportunities to grow throughout their careers without having to leave the classroom. Strong leaders, both at the school and district level, foster an environment where students and teachers can flourish and succeed. 

Second, develop rigorous and adaptive learning systems. Schooling should be personalized, this can mean proficiency-based learning pathways that empower students to demonstrate their knowledge and skills as they progress through their education. This kind of system allows early career exploration and work-based learning experiences.  What’s more, learning is lifelong, so as economic conditions and demands change, workers can re-skill and pursue new opportunities.

Third, be intentional about supporting all learners. This means ensuring that students who require additional learning supports receive them. It also means ensuring students furthest from opportunity have the same opportunity to pursue rewarding work or further education as students attending our best resourced schools. All students should have a pathway to success, regardless of their background or geography. 

And fourth, we will need to build an ongoing nonpartisan planning process to set broadly shared goals for prosperity. Circumstances will change and leadership will need to bring all the players in the system together to evolve policy over time to meet those shared goals.

This is not just aspiration and hope. This kind of change is already taking place. In more than a dozen states, we are seeing green shoots of this work emerge. 

In Montana, a convening of the state’s offices and agencies with constitutional education authority is asking big questions about the state’s place in a changing global economy. Leaders are looking at what students will need to know in an evolving labor market featuring new technologies and new skill requirements. And they’re analyzing the changes that will be needed in light of all of these factors to ensure all students develop their full educational potential—as mandated by the state constitution. 

In Pennsylvania, the state approved a bipartisan measure to create the 2030 Commission on Education and Economic Competitiveness this past summer. Premised on the same blueprint, the commission’s mandate is to set a new vision for education, and begin exploring how the state’s education system should change to better prepare graduates for the jobs of tomorrow. 

In states as diverse and varied as Alabama and Hawaii, Mississippi and Minnesota, a new bipartisan vision of education is taking root.

And the urgency of now is real and pressing. Student achievement and wellbeing is at its lowest in decades and disparities are yawning.

The time is now for a renewed commitment to the power of public education. The time is now to build the public education system that will allow today’s graduates and future generations to succeed, our economy to thrive, and our democracy to remain strong. 

Llew Jones is a Republican member of the Montana House of Representatives, Justin Woodson is a Democratic member of the Hawaii House of Representatives, and Vicki Phillips is CEO of the National Center on Education and the Economy.