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The foundation of America’s economic growth and prosperity is publicly funded education, education for the public good. In addition to the ongoing and necessary debate about the affordability of higher education and the burden of student loan debt, the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown our system of public elementary and secondary education into disarray. The shutdown of in-person learning last spring contributed to the flattening of the infection curve across many areas in April and May, though the costs to students, teachers and families have been high.

As the new school year begins, parents, teachers, and students are rightly concerned about health and safety as well as regaining the benefits of in-person instruction. The problems inherent in educating millions of children safely during a pandemic have been compounded by decades of underfunding and inequality, forcing dedicated teachers to fill the gap and worried parents to try and juggle childcare, education, and job concerns all at once, not to mention the hardship of families who rely on school to supplement food and Internet access.

What the country has been confronted with is a lack of leadership and guidance beginning with the current administration and cascading through all levels of government. What we need short term in order to return to school with confidence is consistent, science-based information, adaptable guidelines for reopening and conducting classes, and emergency funding to help offset declining revenues in many jurisdictions.

Looking ahead we must return experience and leadership to the Department of Education and we must acknowledge and tackle the myriad issues the pandemic has brought to light: food insecurity, the reality of school as childcare, the inequality of access for disadvantaged and rural students, the critical teacher shortage that is a result of underfunding and undervaluing those who we trust to educate our children. We must recall that this pandemic has not hit all groups equally—the most vulnerable and minority populations continue to suffer the greatest.

As a country we have worked to ensure that quality public K-12 education and affordable college are available for all and that America can compete in a global marketplace. But there is a real disconnect between the economics of higher education relative to what is economically possible or reasonable in the marketplace. We need to have serious conversations about the student loan model of education and whether that model results in the kind of opportunity we want for ourselves as a country. We need to look, at the very least, at a commonsense indexing of income and student loan forgiveness and payback, and we need to remove private lenders and middlemen and return to direct government loans to protect students from predatory lending practices. As a college-level instructor, Kael knows these issues firsthand—as well as having funded his own university education two decades ago via student loans, graduating with almost $25,000 in debt.

The model of yesteryear is not robust or dynamic enough to cover all students today. The economic reality is substantially different, the model not sustainable. We as a nation have long held that an educated populace is a public good, and the government therefore has an essential role to play in creating a system that is a fair deal. We are not there yet, and how we get there will require more talking and listening to ensure that our values are reflected in our education system.