Opinion

Rotherham: As Governors Convene for Axios Education Town Hall, Looking Beyond ESSA & School Shootings to Broader Crises Affecting Schools

By Andrew Rotherham | February 21, 2018

Photo credit: Getty Images

As the nation’s governors convene in Washington this week for their biannual meetings, they will bring with them an issue that is on the plate of every governor in every state — education.

The 74 and Axios will cast light on the state of the nation’s schools by hosting a town hall Friday morning with several attendees at the National Governors Association’s 2018 Winter Meeting. Colorado’s John Hickenlooper, North Carolina’s Rory Cooper, and Idaho’s C.L. (Butch) Otter will be there. (For more info on the event, and how to attend, click here.)

The last similar event I’m aware of was a town hall NBC hosted a few years ago. It was revealing.

The Republican agenda at that point was mostly about giving schools accountability grades, busting unions, and expanding school choice — popular, sure, but hardly a comprehensive school improvement agenda. Scott Walker was there and had just rolled back union power in Wisconsin, and he was the toast of Republican circles.

The Democrats, by contrast, had all manner of plans and programs but little to structurally change an education system that is fundamentally failing millions of low-income and minority students — the very students the party claims to care most about.

When Maryland’s Martin O’Malley was asked why Democrats didn’t seek to learn about and emulate some of former Florida governor Jeb Bush’s successful reforms, he responded that they had former North Carolina governor Jim Hunt instead: governor-style identity politics for schools. Hunt, of course, has a strong record, and there is plenty to learn from North Carolina, Florida, and elsewhere, and most serious analysts find merit in some ideas championed by both parties. Yet here we are, with a vexing partisan breakdown that paved the way for the Every Student Succeeds Act and Washington more or less throwing in the towel on school improvement for the time being.

2018: The Year the Every Student Succeeds Act Shifts From Planning to Practice and States Face Their First Test on Accountability

So states are where the action is now. The 74 has looked at why 2018 is the year when ESSA work starts in earnest, and the opportunities and risks the law presents. A candid conversation from state chief executives about how they plan to use ESSA to actually change the status quo, as well as all the risks, would be valuable, and hopefully Axios’s Mike Allen can provoke one. Right now, it’s mostly happy talk from pro-ESSA people and a doom loop from the law’s critics.

An issue that is also sure to attract attention given this moment is school shootings. Few need convincing that gun violence is a problem for schools, and more generally in America — but there is intense disagreement about what to do about it. In terms of schools, since Columbine, about 250 people have lost their lives in mass shootings at schools, colleges, and universities, including last week’s tragedy in Florida. (It’s hard to get exact data because of a lack of federal funding to research and track this issue; you can thank the National Rifle Association, among others, for that.)

At the same time, suicide rates for young people are soaring — nearly 5,500 lives lost in 2015. You’ve heard a lot about the flu and school shootings the past few weeks. Yet today, for people ages 15 to 24, suicide is a far more likely cause of death than those problems plus all other diseases put together. Only accidents claim more 15-to-24-year-olds’ lives. And suicide is the third-leading cause of death for kids 10 to 14. One issue need not be pitted against the other — both demand attention — and gun policy and suicides are keenly related. But it’s worth remembering that suicide is claiming 15 times as many young lives as all the school shooting deaths since Columbine — each year. We should hear more about it from the nation’s leaders.

So this week, I want discussions about ESSA from our nation’s governors and ideas for progress on guns. But I want to hear about the broader crises affecting too many of our nation’s young people as well.

Disclosure: Andrew J. Rotherham, a co-founder and partner at Bellwether Education, is a senior editor at The 74 and serves on The 74’s board of directors.

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