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Think Tank's 2020 Platform: President Should Push to Sever School Funding From Property Taxes

The winner of the 2020 presidential campaign should encourage the use of "high-quality charter schools" as a strategy not a goal, and attempt to move school funding models away from a reliance on local property taxes that so often short-change students of color. 

Those are two big pieces of a proposed education agenda for the next president from the Center for American Progress, a left-of-center Washington think tank often aligned with Democrats. In addition, the platform addresses racial gaps in education, teacher preparation, and preparing students for life after high school. CAP's agenda touches on sensitive issues in the party and likely will find both warm and cold reception among different Democratic constituencies. 

The agenda, which has five core principles and was released Tuesday, also says that while there used to be a bipartisan consensus around accountability, teacher evaluation based on test scores, and public school choice, "These efforts—though in many cases clearly necessary—were proven insufficient." To a certain extent, that reflects discontent among many Democrats with President Barack Obama's education track record, including his support for charters and robust federal involvement in school improvement strategies. 

"A new education agenda must be rooted in the idea of opportunity for all, with equity in access at the center. This means developing policies in partnership with everyday people," the group says in a summary of its proposed agenda for 2020 candidates. 

Why does platform (potentially) matter? For one thing, a candidate without a clear and extensive K-12 vision might decide to actually, let's say, "adopt" parts of this platform. But in addition, there were close connections between CAP and President Barack Obama's administration, including on education policy. Its current vice president for K-12 policy, Scott Sargrad, worked at Obama's Education Department. And an Obama assistant secretary for education, Carmel Martin, went on to be CAP's executive vice president for policy. (Martin now works for Beto O'Rourke's presidential campaign.) It's not hard to imagine that many Democrats would rely on CAP policy as well as staff in a future administration. However, a slice of the Democratic electorate views CAP with suspicion or dislike for its stances on education and other issues. 

So far, candidates' education plans have focused largely on things like increasing funding for disadvantaged students and raising teacher pay, two ideas that resonate with the Democratic Party's base. Sargrad recently said he was disappointed more Democratic candidates had not substantively addressed a variety of important educational issues, although he did applaud the focus on teacher pay. Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., has shared a desire to break the link between property taxes and funding levels for schools, but has not clarified how she'd get this done.

Want more information about CAP's platform? Click on one of the phrases below to see a few highlights from how the platform addresses the issue. 

  1. Applying an explicit race equity lens to policy development
  2. Preparing all students for college and the future workforce
  3. Modernizing and elevating the teaching profession
  4. Dramatically increasing investments in public schools and improving the equity of existing investments
  5. Bringing a balanced approach to charter school policy

1. Applying an explicit race equity lens to policy development

  • The next administration, CAP argues, should have the U.S. Department of Education issue guidance that "calls for the elimination of property-tax-based school financing models that privilege wealthy and mostly white districts." The basis of this, CAP says, is the "Powell exception" to the San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez Supreme Court ruling that found there is no right to an education in the U.S. Constitution. That refers to a section of Justice Lewis Powell's opinion that there could be some conditions in which "a State's financing system occasioned an absolute denial of educational opportunities to any of its children" or if the system "fails to provide each child with an opportunity to acquire the basic minimal skills necessary" for things like political participation. Needless to say, such guidance (although nonbinding) would be a hugely controversial step for any administration. 
  • "Creating policies targeted exclusively at repairing the ongoing harm to nonwhite students in American can also result in unrealized economic prosperity and mobility," CAP says.

2. Modernizing and elevating the teaching profession

  • "Unfortunately, teachers are notoriously underpaid," CAP states bluntly. States and districts should raise teacher pay "to match that of other profession," the group says.
  • CAP's "comprehensive policy agenda" for teaching should include a "purposeful" approach to who gets into teacher preparation programs; a focus on diversifying the teacher workforce; ensuring teacher prep programs get more rigorous coursework; evaluating teacher candidates' readiness for the job using methods beyond multiple-choice exams; and defining career pathways to allow "excellent teachers" more influence. 

3. Preparing all students for college and the future workforce

  • "Give every student the opportunity to graduate high school with college credit and a meaningful workforce credential," CAP says. This can be accomplished, CAP says, by creating a new federal-state-industry model to help identify school models that can scale up. 
  • The group says districts could also establish specific progressions of course content that could help with "preparation for careers in the new economy."

4. Dramatically increasing investments in public schools and improving the equity of existing investments

  • Obviously related to point one, CAP wants more Title I aid to disadvantaged students. But it also wants new "public education opportunity grants" to help pay for resources and school staff that many wealthy districts have, but disadvantaged ones lack. The think tank suggests that a new federal commission study things like guidance counselors, art and music classes, and school nurses as three possibilities for these grants. 
  • "In exchange for new federal funding, states would need to ensure that districts serving high percentages of students from families with low incomes are providing the resources determined necessary by the aforementioned commission," CAP states. In other words, those new grants wouldn't pay the whole bill. 

5. Bringing a balanced approach to charter school policy

  • In general, CAP has traditionally been a supporter of charter schools, but much of the Democratic Party is now skeptical of the publicly financed and independently operated schools. In its platform, CAP says there should now be a "balanced approach" to charters. That means encouraging the growth of "good school options" like strong charters, but also trying to ensure that charters avoid negatively affecting districts. "Strong authorizing and accountability" is key, the group says, as are transparency in funding arrangements and policies around "backfilling" enrollment.
  • "Decisions about where to locate schools and programs and how to make enrollment decisions—for example, boundaries, admissions requirements, and lottery rules—should be analyzed with a race equity lens," CAPs says.

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