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K-12 Domestic Realists Chart an Agenda to Go Beyond Education’s Culture Wars

“K-12 education’s collective illusions divert attention away from the dogged fact that most Americans, including policymakers and young people, agree on important K-12 issues.

The daily news on K-12 education is filled with stories about culture wars on issues such as critical race theory, teaching American history, banning books in libraries, and gay and transgender rights. While these disagreements exist, focusing on them creates collective illusions (or false narratives) about what Americans want from K-12 education. Collective illusions exist because a majority of individuals privately reject an opinion but go along with it because they incorrectly believe that is what most people want.  

K-12 education’s collective illusions divert attention away from the dogged fact that most Americans, including policymakers and young people, agree on important K-12 issues. This other K-12 story about agreement on central issues creates an ideological heartland that exists not as a physical location but as a state of mind not subject to ideological culture wars. Domestic realists live in this ideological heartland occupied by roughly two-thirds of Americans. They may lean Left or Right or are from that forgotten group called moderates. They share a desire for practical solutions rather than culture wars. 

A Different Story 

Today’s domestic realists in K-12 education’s ideological heartland agree on three things. 

First, K-12 is a top-of-mind issue and needs a priority reset. A bipartisan poll of 2022 midterm voters reports that nearly three in four (72%) say their top 2023 priority for state lawmakers is “improving K-12 education,” surpassed only by over three in four (76%) whose top priority is “improving the economy and job situation.” 

An Echelon Insights survey documents the depth of Americans’ desire for change. Nearly six in ten (56%) want schools to rethink how they educate children and create new ways to teach. Populace, a Massachusetts nonprofit, provides details on this K-12 reset. It reports that Americans prioritize developing “practical skills” for young people in describing what they want from K-12 education. This includes the ability to “problem solve and make decisions,” “demonstrate character,” and “demonstrate basic reading, writing, and arithmetic.” Only one in four (26%) think schools do this successfully. 

Second, the college degree has lost its shine. A Wall Street Journal-NORC poll finds that nearly six in ten (56%) Americans say a four-year degree is “not worth the cost because people often graduate without specific skills and with a large amount of debt….” Those most skeptical about the value of a degree are between the ages of 18 to 34. Populace reports that “getting kids ready for college” has dropped from a pre-pandemic ranking of ten out of 57 K-12 priorities to 47. 

Moreover, current Gen Z high schoolers do not see college through the same rose-colored glasses as prior generations did. Five surveys between February of 2020 and January of 2022 found that in January of 2022 half (51%) of high schoolers plan to attend a four-year college, 20 percentage points down from a 71% high in May 2020. Nearly one-third prefer post-high school educational experiences of two years or less rather than a four-year college experience.

Third, parents want more educational pathways for young people. American Compass reports that more than eight in ten (85%) parents “strongly agree” or “somewhat agree” that there should be “more educational options available for my child,” with strong support for non-college career pathways. These include programs like a three-year apprenticeship after high school leading to a “valuable credential and a well-paying job.” 

Additionally, a Tyton Partners survey reports that more than 70% of parents are interested in new in-and out-of-school programs that offer a range of outcomes and produce a well-rounded education for children.

A Governing Agenda

These three priorities are a central part of what many governors have proposed as a K-12 governing agenda. An analysis of 2023 gubernatorial state of the state addresses reports that providing career and technical programs and more educational options and support programs for families and young people ranked among the most popular issues named by governors.  

These programs include apprenticeships and internships; dual enrollment in high school and postsecondary education; career academies, boot camps for acquiring specific knowledge and skills; and staffing, placement, and other support services for families and young people. All of these acquaint students with the practical demands of the workforce and employers by engaging them in work guided by adult mentors. They develop a young person’s self-agency by providing them with the knowledge, relationships, and networks they need to pursue opportunity and human flourishing. 

Five features characterize these programs:

  • Learning linked to credentials: Programs teach academic and technical skills linked with local labor employer needs. Students receive a credential when completing a program so they have a leg up on getting a good job. 
  • Focus on work and careers: Students explore work and careers beginning early in school, with guest speakers and field trips. In high school, they participate in work placement (integrated into classroom instruction) to connect them with adults. 
  • Adult advisors: Advisors help students make informed choices and overcome barriers they encounter. They also help students develop confidence and knowledge so they can make their own choices about their pathway.
  • Community partnerships: Employers, industry groups, and other local institutions create civic partnerships focused on program success. These include written agreements that clarify responsibilities, governance structures, and funding sources. 
  • Supportive Laws and Policies: Local, state, and federal laws, policies, and programs can (and do) create a framework for program development. This is central to program success.

There is convincing evidence that these programs contribute to a young person’s adult success. A Fordham Institute analysis shows five benefits. First, they are not, in fact, a path away from college, as those who take career-oriented courses are just as likely as their peers to attend college. Second, they increase graduation rates. Third, they increase college outcomes, especially for women and disadvantaged students. Fourth, they boost one’s income. Fifth and finally, they enhance other skills like perseverance and self-efficacy.  

A New Opportunity Program 

Americans want a new opportunity program for young people where a college degree is one of many pathways to opportunity. This opportunity pluralism creates a common-sense governing agenda for policymakers based on a more flexible K-12 education system. But this does not imply uniformity in implementation. Republicans in 22 states and Democrats in 17 states hold the governorship and both state houses—the trifecta of single-party government—so legislative specifics will vary due to voter preferences. 

This implementation pluralism follows the American federalist tradition. It allows states and local communities to test and refine laws and policies over time. In the words of former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, “a single courageous State may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory and try novel societal and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.” 

There is a genuine opportunity for coalition-building in the ideological heartland that overcomes our collective illusions about what Americans seek from K-12 education. We can create a new narrative about a coalition of domestic realists who have a practical set of governing ideas based on everyday concerns shared by most Americans.

Bruno V. Manno is senior advisor for the Walton Family Foundation’s education program and former United States Assistant Secretary of Education.

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