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A Call to Advance Education Innovation and Opportunity

By Angela Williams

Nearly four years since the COVID-19 pandemic, America’s education system continues to undergo a transformative shift. The need to prioritize policies that support our nation’s children and young adults – disadvantaged students, in particular – is more urgent than ever.

Recognizing this, the Congressional Black Caucus Institute (CBCI) 21st Century Council recently released its 2024 annual report addressing many of the nation’s biggest challenges. The report and its policy recommendations are delivered to the White House, U.S. Congress, and state and local government officials.

Stride, Inc. is a proud member of the CBCI 21st Century Council and contributor to this report. As a leading national provider of education and technology offerings to students and schools, Stride understands the impact of good public policy. Stride collaborated with several other members of the 21st Century Council, including National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, American Federation of Teachers, KIPP Public Schools, Education Reform Now, and Adlatem Global Education.

Two of the most critical issues in the report are expanding education opportunities and workforce development.

On education, the report highlights the important contributions of digital learning and charter schools in America’s public education system. Public charter schools offer an array of options tailored to diverse student populations in urban, suburban, and rural areas.

The growth in public charter school enrollment, especially among African American students, reflects a resounding demand for increased educational options. Diverse charter school models – brick-and-mortar schools, online schools, hybrid schools, and micro-schools – are incubators of innovation, offering flexibility and choice to families seeking alternatives that cater to the unique needs and challenges students face.

Digital learning has emerged as a powerful force in addressing the educational disparities that disproportionately affect marginalized communities. Digital learning models, including full-time online schools and blended schools, leverage technology to expand learning opportunities for students that transcend geographical and financial constraints. Digital learning options often serve as a lifeline for low-income families, providing equitable access to high-quality educational programs and resources. They extend education beyond traditional classrooms, enabling students to learn from the safety and comfort of their homes.

A notable trend during and after the COVID-19 pandemic is the increasing preference of African American families for online schools and home-based options. The motivations behind these choices are rooted in concerns about safety, bullying, and racism faced by students of color in too many traditional public schools. A 2021 national poll found that 69% of African American parents believe in continuing to offer digital learning opportunities, emphasizing the need to keep these options available to families.

The 21st Century Council report also highlights how digital learning not only breaks down geographic barriers but also plays a pivotal role in addressing the digital divide. By providing devices and internet connectivity to underserved communities, education providers can help bridge the technology gap, giving African American students and students from low-income backgrounds equal access to learning resources that promote both academic success and digital literacy – essential skills in today’s technology-driven world.

However, challenges persist, particularly in ensuring that low-income online public school students, a significant number of whom are African American, receive equitable access to federal meal benefits for school children. Current federal regulations prevent online public school students who learn from home from receiving the free or reduced meal benefits they are entitled to simply because they do not learn in a traditional public school building. Among the 21st Century Council report’s policy recommendations is to change the federal regulation to ensure eligible, low-income online public school students are treated equally and receive the benefits of the National School Lunch Act, safeguarding both their educational and nutritional well-being.

The report also highlights the importance of enacting policies aimed at building a strong and thriving workforce. Another policy recommendation in the report is for Congress to reauthorize the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA). Essential provisions should include supporting public-private partnerships and skilled trades programs, coupled with a streamlined application process to guarantee students have access to the training and opportunities needed to thrive in the workforce. Stride further recommends allowing private sector participation and online training opportunities.

Embracing digital learning opportunities, championing education options, and expanding workforce development for today’s and tomorrow’s workers – critical issues that are among the top policy recommendations offered in the 21st Century Council 2024 annual report.

As we continue to rebuild our education system post-pandemic, we urge policymakers at the federal, state and local levels to embrace these ideas, not only because they are vital to the needs of communities of color and low-income families, but because they will help to strengthen all of America.

Angela Williams is Senior Director of Government & External Affairs at Stride, Inc. She is a former Colorado state legislator and founder of the Colorado Black Democratic Legislative Caucus.