StudentsFirst Policy Agenda: Summary

The Challenge

The American public education system is losing its capability to prepare our children for the modern workforce. The most recent international data shows that U.S. students are lagging far behind students in other industrialized nations. U.S. students scored “below average” in math on the PISA examination placing the U.S. 25th out of the 34 OECD participant nations.1 Only 69 percent of teen-agers complete high school in four years, only 40 percent of young people hold an associate’s or higher college degree and fully half of U.S. employers report a gap between their needs and the skills of their workforce.2

As our students fall further behind, the economic downturn is forcing states and local governments to make even deeper cuts to education. In the last year, 46 states have faced budget deficits of more than $130 billion. In response: Colorado cut $260 million from public education, about $400 per student; Georgia solved part of their $4.2 billion shortfall by slashing $403 million from K-12 funding; Illinois cut $311 million from their education budget; California—which ranks last in per-student K-12 spending—addressed a $17.9 billion deficit by cutting billions from public education and will likely announce more cuts this week.3

The fiscal challenges in 2011 will be even more severe, with 40 states already predicting a budget shortfall, totaling an additional $113 billion (and that’s on top of the combined shortfall of $191 billion from 2010). While many states have been able to stave off cuts thanks to the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, that money is now gone. The fact of the matter is the well has dried up and we have to do everything we can to make sure our policies and laws reflect the smartest ways to ensure our students not only receive the best education possible, but that they have new opportunities to excel. We must re-dedicate our collective attention to putting in place state and district level policies that put students at the center of every decision we make in education. Our students deserve nothing less.


It’s time for a new direction.

Right now, at the start of a new year and new legislative sessions in states across the country, we have a clear opportunity to make smart policy choices in education that put the best interests of students at the center of these tough decisions. If we do not act now, we risk spending more money on policies and programs that don’t work and don’t give students the best chance at success. We cannot afford to let another year pass by without changing our priorities.


How can we drive change?

StudentsFirst has taken the feedback from our membership and dozens of education policy experts and crafted a policy roadmap for lawmakers to consider as the new legislative year begins. We know that many of the policies we advance in this document will invite debate, and we encourage that debate as an important step to making the most important issue in America a top priority for all Americans. Thanks to the hard work of many of our partners in education reform, we have the evidence backing these as the most effective changes we can make to put students first in our public education systems. This policy agenda serves to help guide state and district policy makers in putting students first in their decisions as they face tough choices in the coming year.


Top Policy Priorities for Change

The StudentsFirst Policy Agenda challenges states and districts to take action now by fighting for and implementing change in three critical areas. We will support policies that will:

(1) Elevate the teaching profession by valuing teachers’ impact on students by:


(2) Empower parents with real choices and real information by:


(3) Shift spending taxpayers’ money to get better results for students by:

Evaluating teachers based on evidence of student results rather than arbitrary judgments, and separating teacher evaluation from the collective bargaining process.

Evaluating principals on their ability to drive student outcomes, and to attract, retain, manage and develop excellent teachers

Supporting all paths that bring excellent teachers and instruction to students

Paying teachers substantially more for effectiveness

Making all staffing decisions based on teachers’ impact on students.

Eliminating tenure, and making teaching a profession based on respect and performance


Creating more high quality, publicly funded school choices

Empowering parents with clear and useful data

Empowering parents to trigger the turnaround of a failing school

Requiring parent consent for students placed with ineffective teachers


Promoting governance structures that prioritize accountability and put students’ interests first

Dispelling the myths about what works and only spending money on policies that advance student achievement

Creating pension and benefit programs responsibly

Each of these three priority areas and the corresponding strategies build off each other, outlining a system of reforms necessary for states to create an environment where students have the best opportunity to perform. This policy agenda is a living document from which we will continue to build.

Undoubtedly, some of these changes require tough decision making by local leaders and legislators, but the benefits of driving these uncompromising policies today will ignite staggering results in the long run. Research shows that if we can turn our education system into a top performer by 2025, our 2037 GDP would improve by five percent.4 With our members, resources, partners, and the facts behind us, we will fight to shift the balance of power to effective educators, parents and most importantly, students. When this dynamic is reflected in all our policies governing public education in America, our students will rise to the top of international rankings with the skills and knowledge necessary to solve the many greater challenges that lie ahead.



1Programme for International Student Assessment, 2009

2National Center for Education Statistics (2007). Computation by DAS-T Online Version 5.0 on 10/29/2007 using U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2003-2004 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS:04), as cited in the Business Roundtable report, Roadmap for Growth, December 2010.

3Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, “States Continue to Feel Recession’s Impact”, December 16, 2010

4Hanushek and Woessmann. The Role of Cognitive Skills in Economic Development, p. 657, Journal of Economic Literature 2008