5 Key Education Stories to Watch in 2014

Common Core, universal pre-k and the fate of New York’s charter schools are among the most important issues this year.

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Each New Year brings the tradition of making predictions about what's to come in politics, fashion and the economy. But action on several education trends this year may actually have the most important long-term ramifications for our country. Below are a few things parents should be watching:

1. Universal Pre-K: The Obama administration has announced bold plans to encourage states to make pre-Kindergarten available to more low-income children. These ambitions may not gain traction, given tight fiscal conditions and the unlikelihood of reaching consensus in Congress. But offering families access to affordable, high-quality early care and education continues to poll well among women regardless of party affiliation. That could generate some interest from Republicans interested in narrowing the gender gap in this Congressional election year. Another way the president and his team might build support for pre-K on the right is by finding ways to encourage private employers to offer on-site early childhood education or offer greater tax breaks for working families to access high quality programs at a child care center of their choice.

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2. Common Core: The new Common Core state education standards and assessments, which 45 states and D.C. have signed on to, continue to capture headlines. Forces on the political left and the right are upset for varying reasons, often rooted in bad information about what Common Core actually is. State policymakers continue to feel pressure to reverse course on Common Core. So far, four states have opted out of the assessments portion, but it's likely that more states will take similar action, even as they keep the Common Core standards in place. Supporters of Common Core are facing an uphill public-relations battle, which will make Connecticut's effort to better market Common Core to families worth watching this year. If state leaders can gain traction in convincing Connecticut parents to support Common Core, I hope that funders and corporations pour more funds into similar activities aimed at better informing families about the complex changes that reformers seek.

3. Parental Choice: The new mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio, pledged to take a hard line against charter schools – both by ending the city's practice of allowing charters to share buildings with public schools and by calling for a moratorium on the growth of charter schools in the city. As Bill Philips, the leader of the North East Charter Schools Network ponders: "What does this say to other cities with programs that encourage school districts and charter schools to work together to solve facilities and funding challenges (an initiative supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation)?" Could a setback in New York City impact other districts and mayors who have long looked to the city as a model for reform and leadership?

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4. Reforming Failing Schools: While we wait for solid data on the $5 billion federal investment in turning around chronically poor-performing schools, look to Illinois, where Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn has chosen as his re-election running mate Paul Vallas, the former CEO of Chicago's schools and the person charged with turning around New Orleans' schools after Hurricane Katrina. If Quinn and Vallas win in November, Illinois could initiate a statewide achievement district similar to the Recovery District that has revitalized New Orleans' education system, following similar trends in Tennessee and Michigan.

5. Education Elections: Washington's tendency is to focus exclusively on politics in the nation's capital, but when it comes to education, the real action is often in the states, where local leaders make crucial decisions about funding, standards, and school choice. Three races to watch include the state schools' chief races in California and Georgia – both large states with diverse student populations and a history of education reform – and the race for Mayor of Newark, N.J., where the successor to now-Sen. Cory Booker will contend with a chronically underperforming school district that has been run by state authorities for nearly two decades. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg famously committed $100 million to help improve Newark's schools. Can the new mayor continue to bring this kind of attention to them?

Universal pre-K, Common Core, school reform and state elections will all make 2014 a year to watch in education. Since the decisions made this year will affect a generation of students, keep these trends on your radar.

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