Q&A with CAP’s new Senior Vice President for Education, Jesse O’Connell


The Center for American Progress welcomes Jesse O’Connell as senior vice president for education. In this role, he will lead our efforts to advance policies that ensure all Americans have access to high-quality educational opportunities across the learning spectrum, including early childhood, K-12. year and higher education. In his role, Jesse will work with the teams to develop, build support and successfully implement our education policy program. This political agenda helps inform and is informed by addressing our challenges in the economy, racial equity, health, climate, and democracy.

Prior to joining CAP, Jesse served as Director of Strategy for Federal Policy at the Lumina Foundation, leading the foundation’s federal policy efforts to increase high-quality college graduation and promote affordable post-secondary education. Follow Jesse on Twitter @jesseocnl.

Q&A with Jesse

He hasn’t even completed his first week with us, but we wanted to take a moment with Jesse to talk about his prospects for arrival and review the nation’s priorities at this important time in history.

CAP: What first attracted you to education policy?

Jesse: My grandfather was an immigrant and a domestic worker, and my mother was the first person in her family to go to college. So I grew up with a keen awareness of the opportunities education can provide. Later, working in a college financial aid office, I spoke to students and families every day and heard about the challenges and barriers they faced getting to college. . It gave me a clear feeling that policy change was the most effective lever to solve these problems on a large scale.

CAP: Given a diverse professional background, from college financial aid administrator to director of federal policy priorities at the Lumina Foundation, what prospects do you look forward to lending our work to federal policy? education?

Jesse: I have been very fortunate that the different stages of my career have each provided insight into the policy-making process from a different angle. What you see as a funder is different from what you see in an association and is different from what you see as a practitioner. I’d like to think that these experiences helped me think holistically about how a given policy is both made and received, and the value of seeking out different stakeholder perspectives throughout the process, particularly in education policy, where the community perspective is crucial. And I know that the K-12 education policy team at CAP has enormous strength and focus in this regard.

CAP: The K-12 public education system serving the largest number of students overall, what should Congress and the White House focus on in the next two years to reinvent the how public schools should work for all students?

Jesse: There is no doubt that the federal government must continue to increase its investment in public schools, even as policymakers strive to improve the equity of our current investment. And that investment needs to be both in physical school infrastructure – which we’ve seen a start with US bailout funds, but much more is needed – as well as in our teachers, especially given the tremendous pressure that our workforce of educators has been under. the last two years. I hope we also see federal policymakers continue to push for greater access to rigorous, personalized K-12 pathways.

PAC: The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated the child care workforce and reduced enrollment in early childhood education programs. But these systems were more vulnerable to such a crisis because, historically, the United States has deeply underinvested in early childhood education. How do you see the opportunity to solve this long-standing problem?

Jesse: The pandemic has finally brought the real precariousness faced by child care providers and early childhood educators into the public consciousness, a crisis that actors on the ground have long tried to raise awareness with urgency. So if there’s an opportunity ahead of us, it’s that there’s finally an audience calling for long overdue investments in early learning and child care, and we’ve seen Democrats in Congress really stepping up to try to achieve that. And as policymakers put these historic investments to good use, we have the opportunity to make lasting progress in child care quality, wages, availability and affordability.

CAP: What are the biggest challenges facing higher education today and why?

Jesse: Affordability, for sure — is always a challenge that cuts across all sectors of the industry and is the root of both access issues and the student debt crisis. But it’s also pretty clear that higher education is plagued by inconsistent quality, and our consumer protection mechanisms and quality assurance processes have fallen short of the challenges of ensuring that students receive the experience and skills they expected from their program. We need to restore student and public confidence in the system because higher education is a crucial part of any effort to build an economy for all.

CAP: Given this unique moment in which the country finds itself, what element of the education policy landscape catches your eye?

Jesse: Given my background in post-secondary education policy, I continue to spend a lot of time thinking about the challenge of how we limit ourselves to what the word “college” – what is it supposed to encompass and express, and how it’s still used as shorthand for a rather specific and mostly outdated type of experience. We need policymakers and the public to embrace and celebrate a wider range of pathways after high school, because that’s what students are doing today. We’ve come so close to making a historic and much-needed investment in community colleges across the country, and I want us to come back to that conversation.

More broadly, I care deeply about the crucial role that education must play in renewing our democracy and restoring social trust. Thinking critically, being exposed to a wide range of ideas, seeing how to engage in civic life: all of this stems from education and that is why education is the foundation of democratic engagement.

CAP: Why CAP? Why now?

Jesse: I sincerely believe that CAP is uniquely positioned to advance key education policy issues at a time when these issues are poised to guide much of the mainstream national policy discourse. These things are important to people – they are quintessential kitchen table issues. And because of that, people don’t look for good solutions on paper but bad solutions in real life. They want simple, straightforward ideas that improve their lives. This has always been CAP’s strength. I feel truly fortunate to have the chance to join CAP at this time when the combination of post-pandemic recovery and historic investments in different parts of our education system gives us this chance to finally bend the access curve, affordability, and quality outcomes at all levels and in all sectors of education.

Some of Jesse’s favorite CAP jobs

About the Education Department

CAP’s Education Department aims to change the American approach to early childhood education, K-12, higher education, and lifelong learning by ensuring equitable access to resources, developing community-centered policies and promoting the ability to fully participate in an inclusive economy based on strong democracy.

Learn more about the department.

Follow the Education Department teams on Twitter: @CAPHigherEd; @CAPEarlyEd; @EdProgress.

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