How Governors Can Lead Schools Out of the Pandemic


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This guest post comes from Danielle Gonzales, managing director for the Education and Society Program at The Aspen Institute. Views expressed in guest posts are those of the author.

Governors are often likened to orchestra conductors: keeping many players in sync by using the powers of office. This skill set has been on display throughout the pandemic response. As decisions continue to be made about what school looks like this year, a vital opportunity exists for gubernatorial leadership to support students and their families. From the equipment and connectivity needs of distance learning to the range of social services required to combat public health and economic crises, governors can play a major role in school success this year.

The coordination of services to students and their families is sometimes shouldered by schools and other times by community-based organizations. These place-based initiatives often coordinate community-wide services for students and families. For example, this year, many community partnerships ensured that food services continued, even when schools closed, and in places like Albuquerque, community centers have filled the child care gap. But no leader other than the governor has the same ability to work with legislatures, state boards of education, business and labor organizations, state and local government agencies, community-based organizations, and the public toward positive educational outcomes.

During the pandemic, schools may need more than mandates and advice; partners, community support and policy clarity could be essential. Governors can help remove silos and fragmentation through children’s cabinets focused on cross-agency coordination. In this role of conductor, only a governor can marshal state agencies to:

    • Review and streamline eligibility requirements.
    • Provide license reciprocity for educators, social workers and other student support professions with shortages in existing talent.
    • Direct agencies to blend funding revenue from federal and state sources like Medicaid, WIOA, ESSA and others so all dollars are working toward the same goal.
    • Facilitate data collection, sharing and analysis.

Better coordination of health services also calls for executive leadership. In a time when trauma and mental health concerns are at the forefront of everyone’s mind, schools need support to ensure the success of the whole child. Governors can work with their state’s education chief to create COVID-19 coordinating councils for a holistic approach, as Tennessee has done.

Control of Medicaid dollars also presents an opportunity for leadership. States can conduct efforts to bolster enrollment in Medicaid, which reimburses for outreach activities. Because many families will experience economic hardship over the next few years and become eligible for Medicaid coverage, states can expand enrollment efforts and look to Pennsylvania’s work to connect communities to health care resources. Districts are often eligible for Medicaid reimbursement for providing services families need during the pandemic.

Challenges with interrupted learning because of school closures, potential teacher shortages and the need for more mental health professionals call for state-level action. Through targeted use of federal CARES Act dollars, or the reallocation of federal and state funding, governors can help address the staffing needs schools now face. AmeriCorps, state service commissions and efforts to activate retired educators could also create opportunities for governors to exert leadership by executive order or through special legislative sessions. Changes to teacher preparation may also help with current and future needs.

Governors hold a unique role throughout this unprecedented year. Leadership makes a tremendous difference. Noted orchestra conductor Benjamin Zander put it like this: “The conductor of an orchestra doesn’t make a sound. He depends, for his power, on his ability to make other people powerful.”

Now more than ever, governors can empower state support structures to help students and families through these trying times.

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