At first glance, the situation may look dire.

High school graduation rates are up, but college and career preparedness are down. Studies show that low salaries are forcing more and more teachers to seek second jobs to piece together a living wage. While some schools are overcrowded, with staggeringly high teacher-to-student ratios, other schools are forced to shut down due to low enrollment. 

These represent just a tiny sampling of the myriad and complex challenges facing the nation’s primary and secondary education system in 2018.

Most people, no matter their background or ideology, agree that education reform is needed. But that is easier said than done: where to start and what reform looks like is where the disagreement begins. Given education’s unique importance to economic and social health at for the individual and for society, the debate often gets heated. There is no single solution for the nation's education woes because the problems vary significantly by region, state, city, district, and, yes, even by school.

So, where do we start? 

Lea Crusey MPP'08

For Lea Crusey MPP’08, the answer is obvious: Start by ensuring that every student has access to quality education. This doesn't mean that every child across the country experiences identical curricula or even the same approach to learning. It merely means that every student should have access to the best teachers, the best information, and the best opportunities to learn, regardless of his or her zip code – or how lucky they happen to be.

With that in mind, in February 2017, Crusey founded Allies for Educational Equity. The mission of the non-partisan, grassroots-funded political action committee is to bring together the political voice, ideas, and actions of education reformers to create a system in which demography is not destiny.

The focus on educational equity is no doubt an important one. Indeed, for those concerned about issues related to crime, generational poverty, and income equality, education reform can be a good place to start the discussion. 

First, it is all too apparent from the data that being born in the wrong zip code or to parents of low socio-economic status is a significant strike against one's educational potential. 

Research cited in an article for the Washington Center for Equitable Growth by Harris Professor Ariel Kalil, director of the Center for Human Potential and Public Policy and co-director of Behavioral Insights and Parenting Lab, indicates that at age four, children from families in the poorest income quintile score on average at the 32nd percentile in math, the 34th percentile in literacy, and at the 32nd percentile when it comes to school readiness. In contrast, children in the wealthiest quintile scored at the 69th percentile in math and literacy and the 63rd percentile in tests measuring school readiness. 

The handicap of poverty – and its effects on education – follows students throughout their education and ultimately impacts their earning potential. And as we have seen, poverty – and the quality of education that comes with it – tends to beget poverty in the next generation, as well.

Even those who rise above and go on to earn a four-year bachelor's degree end up making less than more economically advantaged counterparts. 

A study by economists at the Brookings Institute found that college graduates from families with an income below 185 percent of the federal poverty level (the eligibility threshold for the federally assisted lunch program) earn 91 percent more over their careers than high school graduates from the same income group. By comparison, graduates from families with incomes above 185 percent of the poverty level earned 162 percent more over their careers (between the ages of 25 and 62) than those with a high school diploma.

Through Allies for Educational Equity, Crusey wants to use the power of organizing to improve educational opportunities for all kids. As the organization's website makes clear, there is no overriding educational philosophy or policy mandate. The PAC has members from across the spectrum of education policy: some work in state or local P12 classrooms, some in public policy, others in advocacy. Some are supporters of high-quality charter schools. Others see promise in district reform and are agnostic about school governance type.

 “These individuals may not be high net-worth individuals, but they believe deeply in the principles and practices that recognize every child has the capacity to achieve at high levels,” Crusey said.

What they share in common is a discomfort with the discourse of today – a conversation that tends to vilify supposed opponents and oversimplify complex issues.

We don't pretend that the answers are simple or that there is one silver bullet. But, we also don't pass the buck. Just as we do the hard work to reimagine what it will take to change life trajectories and prove what's possible, it's time for us to put together modest but meaningful political contributions to collectivize our voice and our impact. –

The founding of Allies for Educational Equity marks the latest accomplishment in a career path that, despite the occasional deviation, has often gravitated around education. Upon receiving her undergraduate degree in 2003 from Claremont McKenna College, Crusey joined Teach for America, serving in an East Palo Alto, California, middle school. She went on to teach and work abroad before returning to the U.S. in 2006 to begin working toward her Master's in Public Policy.

"After Harris, I spent some time in the public sector, spent some time in the private sector, and in 2009 I had decided that I needed to get back to my roots [in education]," Crusey recalled.

“The documentary film Waiting for Superman had come out, and I was really inspired by the kind of bold leadership that was happening around the country to disprove myths about what's possible for children to overcome odds and generate incredible learning gains and change the course of their lives,” she said. 

In 2009, while still working to implement a public private partnership in Chicago, Crusey dipped her toes back into education, starting the Young Professionals Board for KIPP Chicago, a charter school network in the city. 

The taste of being back in education reignited her passion, and she decided she needed to do more. She joined StudentsFirst, a national advocacy organization started by Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor of Washington, D.C. public schools. From there, Crusey became Deputy Director of Democrats for Education Reform, an advocacy group that also did electoral work supporting reform-minded Democrats at the local state and federal level around the country. 

“That exposed me to not only some promising leaders that were in public service doing incredible work taking tough positions, but also to some of the difficult challenges in politics around education reform,” said Crusey, whose final post before founding Allies for Educational Equity was senior policy advisor for the United States Department of Education during the Obama Administration.

Harris has played a vital role in Crusey’s journey, which is far from complete.

"Among the things I loved about Harris was this intellectual curiosity across lots of different topic areas and substantive areas,” Crusey said. “I chose Harris for the methods, and I chose Harris for the rigor. But it happened to be that being here at that time with my classmates who were all equally curious and intensively searching for making the world a better place with lots of different substantive areas. I loved that.”

Crusey notes that she and her classmates who pursued careers in public policy share a common interest in achieving some form of systemic change from their work. That idea is present in Allies for Educational Equity, which repeatedly emphasizes that it does not simply collect and distribute funds. The members put their skin in the game, take a seat at the table, and working together, where they live, determine how contributions can be best utilized.

"I still see myself as continuing on this odyssey of learning, exploring, and then trying to turn that journey into some kind of action,” Crusey said.

And if that “odyssey of learning” can help outcomes for just a few children, it will reap dividends for families, neighborhoods, and our civic society.