By: Maria Salciccioli, Policy Analyst
From June 28 – 30, the Education Commission of the States held its 2017 National Forum on Education Policy in San Diego, California. I had the opportunity to attend and relished the chance to meet education leaders from around the country and learn more about other states’ innovative education policies.
Day one focused on school choice policies, and in the opening plenary session, DC got a shoutout from Fordham Institute president Michael J. Petrilli, who called the city “school choice nirvana” and said that the robust charter sector spurred DC Public Schools to improve. He also noted that charter schools need to provide a great education for students with disabilities and minimize suspensions if they want to serve students well. After the plenary, we moved into small group sessions on school choice, and I chose “Expanding School Choice through Open-Enrollment Policies.” One of the session leaders was a superintendent from a small district in New Mexico. Students in New Mexico are allowed to attend schools outside of their home district, but the size of their large rural counties makes that prohibitive. To maximize choice in a rural state, the superintendent’s strategy as a school leader is to increase options within the district by providing online learning, experiential learning, and other opportunities beyond the traditional classroom setting. While DC’s innovative lottery seems to be leaps and bounds beyond what most states offer, the strategies other states used to diversify students’ educational experiences can potentially benefit District students.
The second day had a strong focus on equity, which was much more relevant to the work we do at the State Board. The morning opened with a panel of leaders discussing their states’ biggest achievement gaps and their strategies for addressing them. A panelist from the Alliance for Education asked about the potential impact on a state’s economy if all high school dropouts became high school graduates. I wondered how that logic might resonate in DC, a city with a highly educated workforce where only 69% of students graduate from high school. This marks an improvement over the past several years, but our graduates are not always college- and career-ready, and we need to get them there. I left the session feeling energized about the work our high school graduation requirements task force will do over the next year. I also attended sessions on how Minnesota used data to close attainment and equity gaps and on how Kansas aligned high school education with career opportunities. I took lessons away from both sessions that will certainly inform my policy work here in the city.
The conference ended with some conversations about school finance and a networking lunch that took place steps away from a beautiful beach. It is a testament to the attendees’ commitment to education policy that the indoor sessions were so well attended, considering that the Pacific Ocean was in view of the conference hotel! The State Teachers of the Year, representing all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and several US territories, were in attendance and did a wonderful job of representing the educator perspective at the conference, which kept conversations from getting too far into the weeds and away from the students we’re all working to support. Having the opportunity to spend time with them over lunch was a highlight of the week. I left feeling energized about the great work we’re doing for students in DC, and I also felt more motivated than ever to go above and beyond to support our high school graduation task force, as well as our upcoming ESSA task force, as they work to close achievement and attainment gaps across the city and provide all District students with a great education.