Former Gov. Rendell: Beyond COVID and the ‘Rescue Plan’s’ School Funds, 3 Education Priorities That Should Shape Reauthorization of the Every Student Succeeds Act

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The global pandemic has laid bare the inequities in our education system. As school leaders now chart out ambitious recovery plans for the fall, we must do so with a keen awareness of what was lacking prior to the pandemic, and in particular what we have long failed to provide so many students attending our lowest-performing schools. It is through this lens that we must approach the upcoming reauthorization of the federal Every Students Succeeds Act (ESSA), which sets accountability requirements for schools.

As we look to 2022 and beyond, we must commit to funding three critical programs to better support students assigned to struggling schools:

First, we need to fully fund high quality pre-kindergarten for all low-income students. High quality pre-k has been shown to increase participants’ cognitive and social-emotional skills, health outcomes and long-term employment trajectories, while also reducing male participants’ criminal activity.

In addition, for every dollar spent on high-quality birth-to-five programs for disadvantaged children, including pre-kindergarten, taxpayers can expect a 13 percent per annum return on their investment – with, perhaps not surprisingly, the greatest returns associated with programs at the earliest stages of life. Yet only 34 percent of four-year-old and six percent of three-year-old children are enrolled in state funded pre-K. We must change that.

Second, we must ensure that every student assigned to a low-performing school can attend full-day kindergarten. Only 17 states and the District of Columbia require children to attend full-day kindergarten. Yet, study after study shows students who participate in full-day kindergarten outperform similar students in half-day programs, with both short-term and long-term gains in reading and math. In turn, these gains narrow later achievement gaps between students enrolled in low-performing school districts and those of their more advantaged peers.

Third, we should fund and implement robust after-school tutoring programs that identify children falling behind in early years and provide help via one-on-one or small group instruction so they are able to catch up and then climb up the educational ladder. A meta-analysis of 96 tutoring studies found that, on average, students participating in tutoring programs made gains consistent with moving from the 50th to the 66th percentile of student performance. Moreover, gains were largest for students in the earliest grades.

We can’t achieve these goals overnight, but we must begin pursuing them as quickly and aggressively as possible. During my time as governor of Pennsylvania, we similarly focused on this three-pronged approach to build a foundation for all students they could use as a springboard for lifelong educational success.

The good news is that the Biden administration understands the challenges we face and how this early education approach can significantly improve educational outcomes for vulnerable students. In addition, states are receiving billions of dollars in federal funding as part of COVID-related relief funding, providing an unprecedented opportunity to put new programs into place for younger students.

But those funds will eventually run out, even as the need for them continues. Hence, we must also take advantage of the moment at hand by including pre-k, full-day kindergarten, and tutoring programs as part of the ESSA reauthorization and committing ongoing federal financial support to sustain those programs long after COVID-19 has become a distant memory.

Although the investment will be significant, the benefits will more than exceed the costs over time — not just in terms of return on investment, but also in improved quality of life for both the recipients and the communities in which they live.

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