Eight Ideas to Drive New York’s Economic Recovery Now

By Jonathan Bowles and Winston Fisher

It’d be foolish to bet against New York City, but a full and robust comeback from the COVID-19 crisis is not guaranteed without bold action. It’s increasingly clear that the city’s recovery isn’t like any other. Companies are delaying return to work plans, the 10.2% unemployment rate is among the highest of any major city in the country, and the rates of joblessness among New Yorkers of color and young adults are particularly alarming.

Meanwhile, no other city is coping with as many structural economic challenges brought on by the pandemic. The rise of remote work and the slow recovery of tourism to the ongoing disruption in retail and the severe blow dealt to the arts disproportionately threaten essential parts of New York’s economy.

Putting New York on course for a lasting and equitable recovery will not only require bold action, but also solutions that are new, innovative, and creative. Fortunately, the massive turnover in city government taking place in less than four months—as well as new leadership in Albany—presents an incredible opportunity to take critical steps toward recovery. We’ve already seen many primary election winners proposing big new ideas for building a stronger and fairer city.

The Center for an Urban Future recently published a blueprint for an equitable recovery that features concrete policy ideas from a diverse mix of 175 engaged New Yorkers. Some of the nearly 250 ideas we received would help create jobs right now or support the New Yorkers hardest hit by the pandemic, while others would lay the foundation for a stronger and more inclusive economy over the long run.

While each idea is worthy of consideration, we think the following eight warrant swift action from current and soon-to-be elected city leaders.

1. Pair tech-savvy CUNY students with small businesses that need help adopting technology (S. David Wu, President, Baruch College)
Many small businesses are still hanging on by a thread and need urgent help modernizing their operations with e-commerce, digital marketing, and better financial planning. The city can help make them more competitive in the long-run by creating a matching service that pairs businesses with talented, digitally-savvy CUNY students who are rooted in the communities facing the greatest ongoing needs.

2. Make NYC a global capital of public health (Seth Pinsky, CEO, 92nd Street Y)
As a result of the pandemic, millions of dollars in new public and private investment are poised to flow into the public health sector, resulting in thousands of new, well-paying jobs. This means investing in hospitals and the healthcare system and finally making good on the promise of New York becoming a leading hub in commercial bioscience. And unlike many other parts of the city’s economy, most of these jobs can’t easily be done remotely.

3. Spur the return to offices by supporting public programming that reinvigorates business districts (Larisa Ortiz, Managing Director, Streetsense)
To lure office workers back, the city should support new public amenities and programming in these districts—including new options that aren’t found in most residential neighborhoods. For example, New York should take a page from Vancouver, which has turned alleys into brightly painted spaces with basketball courts and foosball tables, and Montreal, which created interactive, musical swing sets.

4. Spur economic development in underserved communities by making long-overdue public realm improvements (Purnima Kapur, Chief of University Planning and Design, Harvard University)
Economic development officials can spark economic investment, small business growth, and job creation in low-income communities across the five boroughs by making public realm investments like upgrading sidewalks, creating new pocket parks, and improving lighting. Streetscape improvements like these often serve as catalysts for economic development, but too many of the city’s hard-hit neighborhoods have historically been left out of these local place-making projects.

5. Break the logjam around housing development in NYC with a grand bargain around housing and jobs (Rafael Cestero, President, Community Preservation Corp)
The pandemic has only amplified the need for more affordable housing. It’s time to forge a grand bargain by creating a citywide structure that eliminates the power of individual groups or local representatives to scuttle projects because of micro-issues, reallocates housing vouchers to create deeply affordable housing at a mass scale in the communities that need it most, and mandates local hiring on all major projects involving city land or capital.

6. Provide new income supports for NYC’s fast-growing (but low-wage) direct care workforce (Jodi M. Sturgeon, President, PHI)
The industry already employs more than 320,000 New Yorkers, and the aging city population makes it near certain that the number of jobs will grow significantly in the decade ahead. But the sector also pays among the lowest wages of any industry. The city should establish a Home Care Jobs Innovation Fund, providing workers with transportation funds, scholarship programs, and retention bonuses, while also making new investments in career training for direct care workers to improve their job quality and economic prospects.

7. Create an NYC Climate Corps (Tonya Gayle, Executive Director, Green City Force)
Teens and young adults across the city have been far more likely to lose work during the pandemic than other New Yorkers. The city can help thousands of these young adults get on track by leveraging federal infrastructure funds to create an NYC Climate Corps, which would also crucially help the city prepare for the impacts of climate change.

8. Invest in quality childcare for New Yorkers in workforce training programs (Plinio Ayala, President and CEO, Per Scholas)
With 400,000 New Yorkers unemployed and many industries facing a slow road to recovery, the city should help out-of-work New Yorkers acquire new skills so they can transition into industries that are growing. But this will require addressing a barrier that has long prevented many low-income New Yorkers from enrolling in workforce training programs: a lack of affordable childcare.

The next mayor and new leaders across city government will need a lot of good ideas in the year ahead to ensure that the city’s nascent recovery takes hold and accelerates. To build a stronger and more equitable economy over the long run, city leaders should tap into the ingenuity and experience of our fellow New Yorkers who understand how to best support the city’s diverse communities and economy.


Jonathan Bowles is the Executive Director of Center for an Urban Future. Winston Fisher is a Partner at Fisher Brothers. On Twitter @jbowlesnyc & @nycfuture & @Winston_Fisher1.

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NYC badly needs a healthy Midtown

By Ken Fisher and Winston Fisher

We are now celebrating “The Summer of NYC,” and in some ways, it feels like we’re back. Many New Yorkers have come out to rediscover restaurants, ballgames, open streets and parks, while some tourists have returned to experience the magic of New York City.

It’s not just anecdotal or fleeting: The census showed that our population has grown by an astonishing 600,000 people over the past decade. People love New York and want to be here. Our commitment to progressive values, diversity, arts and entertainment make this city unique in the world.

But there’s one very important part of town that is still way too quiet: the city’s economic engine, Midtown Manhattan, where we own office buildings.

What many people don’t realize is that offices in Midtown, New York’s central business district, haven’t achieved much higher than 20% physical occupancy during the pandemic. Walking around Midtown today, there’s a noticeable lack of people and energy which is unlikely to change anytime soon. Concerns about the delta variant have led companies planning big Labor Day comebacks to hit the brakes. While strong leasing activity and demand for building tours suggest people will come back eventually, we are fearful of the short- and long-term consequences each day Midtown stays largely empty.

A robust central business district is critical to an equitable recovery of the entire city. Bringing workers back to the office won’t undo the lasting effects of the past year and a half, but when they don’t come to the office every day, the impact is felt by thousands of small businesses and millions of working New Yorkers.

Midtown is a delicate ecosystem that only works if all the pieces are in place. Companies and office workers rely on restaurants, support services, public safety and good public transportation to make the office the most productive place to be. Empty offices threaten all that infrastructure, and it won’t come back overnight. Our favorite restaurants for lunch or our happy hour spots to catch up with colleagues can’t survive without office workers, and it won’t be long before the lack of MTA revenue from half-empty Metro-North and LIRR trains leads to cuts in service for commuter lines, subways and buses. And it is only a matter of time before empty offices impacts our buildings’ unionized workforce, not to mention our city’s property tax base.

With new leadership in Albany and another change coming to City Hall, we have an opportunity now to put smart policies in place that protect our central business districts today so that they’re still there for us when we need them in the future.

First and foremost, we must guarantee that people feel safe coming back to work. Perceptions around public safety and violence, fair or not, have painted New York as unsafe and undesirable. Our leaders need to recognize the harm this has on tourism, economic activity, and return to work.

We also need to allocate substantial resources and funding to make sure our public transit systems are reliable, clean and safe. That means investing in long-term improvements like the renovation of Penn Station, but also more urgent spending to address vital maintenance and ensure sufficient staffing to run the trains and buses on peak schedules. Without a functioning transit system, workers will be inclined to opt out of the commute and work from home, or drive into the office, clogging our already congested streets and releasing harmful emissions into the air.

It’s time for bold policy solutions like supporting public programming to reinvigorate business districts or allowing for creative uses for vacant storefronts. We should also take advantage of the current moment to advance more ambitious plans for engaging public and open spaces, like the reimagination of the Park Ave. malls that the city is currently pursuing.

Finally, in order to ensure that major employers don’t start thinking about leaving New York for good, we need to continue to develop and attract world-class talent. To stay competitive against up-and-coming markets like Nashville and Austin, New York needs to be pro-business and pro-worker to increase jobs and revenues and make the city a viable place to both live and work. This means improving social services, providing access to credit, affordable housing and childcare and prioritizing workforce development. This is the path to an equitable recovery.

The city is entering a new chapter under new leadership, and we are hopeful for the changes that are to come. It is imperative that current and incoming leaders across the city and sate recognize record-low office occupancy rates for what it is — a threat to the future of small businesses, infrastructure and the economic success in New York City.

The Fishers are partners at Fisher Brothers, which owns five commercial buildings in Midtown Manhattan.

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Winning the Political Marathon

The Democratic Party has clear evidence—and a mandate—for pragmatic, pro-growth policies that benefit everyone. We can’t go back to business as usual.

By Winston Fisher and Sly James

Two months and one attempted coup later, the dust is finally starting to settle on one of the most unsettling election cycles in history. Voters showed up in staggering numbers despite every natural and man-made obstacle under the sun. Both parties’ bases were highly motivated, and the media fueled heated debates over which side would prevail—and later which side did prevail.

Whether or not the radical right will acknowledge it, the result was clear. Now, that we’ve had time to pore over county-by-county returns, it’s equally clear that the election was decided not by either base but by moderate, swing voters. It’s true, Biden and Harris’s path to victory relied on massive voter turnout, including in urban Democratic strongholds. But the decisive votes were cast by those who put more stock in real policies than splashy Twitter rants. These are the votes that the Democratic Party must prioritize and fight for every day over the next four years.

The numbers tell the story. According to this year’s exit polls, moderates represented thirty-eight percent of the electorate. Biden won this demographic nearly two-to-one. The actual number of swing states increased as well—owing not to sudden base voter surges but to the steady rise of moderate voters in those battlegrounds.

What it Really Means

For years, the Democratic Party has sustained an internal fight between moderates and the far left. The media—prioritizing ratings over substance—has stoked the flames by granting an outsized platform to those who scream the loudest. The far left says Trump was defeated because Democrats temporarily set aside their differences. To defeat the evil Trump, the narrative goes, we united around a nominee in ways we didn’t in 2016. Now that the threat is gone—at least until 2024—they are pressuring President Biden to appoint far-left nominees and champion their favorite causes. We can expect this pressure to continue for the next four years.

With respect, we disagree. Not only with the rhetoric coming from the far left, but also with the media’s portrayal of their importance in the party. The facts show that Bernie Bros didn’t hand Biden his victory; he won decisively thanks to the support of suburban voters and independents, with a center-left agenda grounded in economic opportunity—one that appealed to the millions of moderates and swing voters who supported Trump over Hillary in 2016.

A Sustainable Model for Winning More Elections

Moderate voters in the Rust Belt, the Southwest, the Midwest, and in purple states like Georgia and Texas are turned off by the far left’s rhetoric and many of their signature positions. In fact, the aversion among moderates to radical positions is a rare example of bipartisanship: they aren’t buying the snake oil that the Sedition Caucus has on offer, either. However, they are listening to reasonable, substantive voices on bread-and-butter issues like education, healthcare, infrastructure, and access to capital to rebuild small businesses.

Facing an existential identity crisis, Republicans are grappling with the same question that has plagued the Democratic Party: do we align our agenda with the loudest voices or the silent majority? Moderates are waiting for an answer from both sides, and Democrats can’t afford to take a gamble on an untested and polarizing platform. The demographics that Republicans will be laser-focused on bringing back into the fold are the same voters who are critical for a sustainable Democratic majority. We can’t risk losing hard-won moderate votes due to a hard tack to the left that allows Republicans to make amends. The Biden administration has a chance to hold onto these voters for election cycles to come rather than catching the rebound in the wake of Republican failures. But that will only happen if we focus on policies that address the issues that American families grapple with every day, not pandering to far-left echo chambers.

Georgia is a case in point. In the presidential race, thirty-eight percent of voters there saw themselves as moderates—sixty-four percent of whom voted for Biden. During the Senate runoff, Democratic wins were propped up not only by Black voters but also by gains in rural and working-class counties.

Across the country, voters are still largely centrist in their views. Democrats can’t let their fear of taking flak on social media influence their campaigns or their approach to governing. Biden proved that a record number of Americans support a center-left, progressive agenda that is both achievable and impactful and creates economic opportunity for them, their families, and future generations. Now, Democrats must deliver the goods for all Americans.

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The Morning After in Arizona

Mark Kelly’s successful bid for John McCain’s seat in the U.S. Senate is potentially a model for opportunity and hope.

By Winston Fisher and Sly James

Like many Americans, Arizonans woke up for days after November 3rd needing an extra cup of black coffee. An exhausting election night turned into an exhausting election week, at the end of a long, exhausting campaign, and left us with at least two extraordinary results. With the results certified, Arizona voters picked a Democrat for president and, stranger still, a Democrat to take the Senate seat once held by the late, great John McCain.

Mark Kelly defeated Martha McSally in the midst of a perfect storm, politically speaking. Many Arizonans were weary of a president who had denigrated their beloved Maverick and done little to safeguard their health. They were even less enthusiastic about Senator McSally. But their votes for Kelly were not borne of a magical transformation of the Grand Canyon State into a bright blue, liberal bastion. Arizonans were not hungering for radical change. Like most Americans, they crave genuine opportunity and public servants who will promote an opportunity agenda.

In many ways, Kelly is well suited to that task and the archetype of the type of Opportunity Democrat who should be running for elected office. As a former astronaut, he has the genuine persona of a hard-working, get-it-done kind of guy. His wife, former Congressional Rep. Gabby Giffords, is a positive, inspirational figure throughout the state. Kelly is also not afraid of speaking his mind and refusing to bow to public pressure, as his gun safety position clearly proves. You could even say, with all deserved respect to the McCain family, that Kelly has the makings of another Maverick.

All that is a great start. But Kelly will face re-election in two years, not the usual six, since his was a special election in more ways than one. His path to success in 2022 is, as it will be for many Democrats, an opportunity agenda.

In some ways, he has already started on that path. His advocacy for real infrastructure changes and a more effective, affordable public education system are issues that resonate with working class Arizonans and are the core of what the opportunity agenda has to offer. In his election night speech, he paid particular attention to locally owned businesses and their difficulties in accessing capital—especially during the pandemic. He also pointed out that infrastructure, public education, and job skills training have to be suited to this century, not bound by the past. He will also be aided by Biden’s win in Arizona, campaigning (as Kelly did) on issues that resonated with working-class voters.

From Day One

Kelly will have some unique opportunities to work for an opportunity agenda. Because it was a special election, under Arizona law, Kelly was sworn in on December 2nd—thirty-two days before the start of the 117th Congress. This means he’ll be of the minority party—and could remain so for his first two years. That will make it hard, but certainly not hopeless.

As a very junior senator in a politically raw environment, one is tempted to underestimate Kelly’s chances, but his temperament and history would suggest otherwise. By championing issues that appeal to working-class constituents, he has a real chance to make a mark—or even make inroads with politicians weary of the last four years.

The first priority, clearly, is recovery from the pandemic. If ever there was an opportunity for decisive, clear thinking under pressure, Congress’s next response would be it. Democrats like Kelly were born for it.

But beyond the immediate crisis, Democrats would be well advised to focus on long-term recovery:

  • Better access to capital will be a godsend for the many new startups and everyday innovators creating businesses in the wake of the pandemic.
  • Public education needs more than a facelift. The pandemic revealed its many shortcomings, and Democrats should be in the forefront of its reinvention.
  • Infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure. Sure, there are roads and bridges to fix and new ones to build, but access to broadband, probably through public-private partnerships, should be Democrats’ Job One.
  • Family values means helping actual families. When Democrats champion early childhood education and meaningful family leave, they are speaking to real citizens—people who need help, not hype.

It’s tempting to idolize Senator-Elect Kelly as a “right stuff” outsider ready to take on Washington. After all, he is literally a former astronaut following in the footsteps of John McCain and John Glenn. But that would be telling only a fraction of the story. What will make the difference to his fellow Arizonans—and his fellow Opportunity Democrats—is his willingness to defy expectations and work for the benefit of everyday, working Americans.

We wish him every success.

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The Debates:
It’s the Policy, Stupid

In the presidential debates, much ado will be made about the clash of personalities and about who is lying to whom, but everyday Americans are desperate to hear about policies that will actually improve their lives.

By Winston Fisher and Sly James

The first of three presidential debates will happen tonight in the swing state of Ohio. It is likely to be heated, personal, and mutually accusatory (just the way cable news likes it). Both sides are ramping up for a fact-checking “gotcha,” sound-bite-rich cage match. Our goal shouldn’t be landing the knockout blow that will encapsulate their grievances against Donald Trump.

We’d be missing the point.

At last month’s convention, speakers were united in their (legitimate) criticisms of Trump and his actions. But, to outside observers, the week-long event was disappointingly light on policies that would help a broad swathe of Americans improve their lives. Even in the midst of a pandemic and the worst economic downturn in recent memory, one would be hard-pressed to recall a discussion about childcare, education, infrastructure, or supporting entrepreneurship.

We know. It’s not easy to talk policy during a media circus, and the debates will certainly be one. But we can’t let TV ratings or our confirmation-biased social media feeds control the story. The stakes are just too high.

So, as our candidates prepare for the events, they should plan on a strategy that will win over Democrats, independents, and some Republicans by speaking to what they will do for them, not fall into the trap of petty politics. Here’s how:

  • Ignore the mudslinging—there will be lots of it. A knowing smile and shake of the head will go far. At most, a quick acknowledgement, identifying yet another lie, and moving on will help the candidates focus on actual policy. Likewise, dismiss the inevitable cheap theatrics like planting what they believe will be embarrassing individuals in the audience.
  • Replace the pithy one-liners with brief, quotable, and substantive policy statements—these are the points that most people are tuning in for, as these will actually benefit them, their family, or someone they know. The majority of Americans know Trump is bad news and they don’t want to hear us spend valuable time rehashing every example why. Here are some suggestions for avoiding the Trump circus:
    • Universal, affordable childcare—unleash the full economic potential of working parents by increasing access to affordable childcare.
    • Paid parental leave—provide paid leave to working parents and increase earning power of families throughout their lifetime.
    • Real education reform—educate Americans for new careers in the 21st century economy.
    • Actual investment in infrastructure—improve America’s global competitiveness by rebuilding infrastructure with public/private partnerships.
    • Universal, portable worker benefits—update worker benefits to reflect the needs of America’s workforce.
    • Better access to capital—not just for Silicon Valley startups, improve access to loans for small businesses started by everyday entrepreneurs.

Millions of swing voters need an affirmative reason to vote for Democrats—at the top of the ticket and everywhere else. Loathing Donald Trump is simply not enough. It wasn’t enough in 2016.

Policies that actually improve lives, unfortunately, do not make for good political theater (or reality TV, or social media memes, or whatever). However, they do have meaning for millions of ordinary Americans—the people who will ultimately decide the future of this country. That’s how you win the debates.

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How Biden’s plan for childcare and pre-K education should reframe how Democrats talk about families and the economy

Democrats have ceded pro-family and pro-economy rhetoric to Republicans for years. Now it’s time to claim it back with policies for investing in children and families.

By Mayor Sly James & Winston C. Fisher

Recently, Joe Biden announced a $775 billion plan to help working parents, fund childcare, and promote national pre-K education. An estimated three million new jobs will result from the program—a solution that will boost the existing workforce of home-based caregivers and pre-K educators and alleviate the childcare shortage for parents.

For decades, Republicans have claimed the mantle of “family values” and “economic growth” with little pushback from Democrats. It should be untenable to be “pro-family” and also contend that parents should be forced to go back to work right after a child is born. It should be untenable to be “pro-economy” and also contend that working parents, primarily mothers, should haven’t access to affordable childcare and quality pre-K early education programs.

In order to win over working and middle-class voters, Democrats must put this issue front and center. It will change how we talk about the economy.

Revealing the Problem

The coronavirus pandemic revealed a shocking disparity in American life—how working parents deal with childcare and pre-K education. Lost amid conversations over whether to reopen schools this fall is a basic fact: for all except the select few who can afford private childcare and tutors, tens of millions of parents do not have viable options for educating and raising their children while they work to pay rent and put food on the table.

The lack of childcare and early education programs was a stark problem before the biggest public health crisis in a century shuttered schools nationwide. The United States does not have national programs for paid family leave or childcare. These glaring absences drive down workforce participation as many parents simply cannot afford to work given childcare’s rising costs.

Certain interventions can change the trajectory of a child’s life right from the beginning. For example, it’s enormously important to read, talk, and play with children when they’re young. But these programs are frequently starved for funding, and in too many communities, they’re simply not available. Childcare and early childhood education programs should be available everywhere in America, in communities, rich and poor, red and blue.

Early childhood programs shouldn’t exist simply because they’re a helpful service. They should be there because we know that it is critical to building a thriving economy. Studies have shown that children enrolled in early childhood education programs are 15% less likely to repeat a grade, more likely to graduate from college, find a job, and own a home.

One study suggests that the return on educational programs for four-year-olds is sixteen dollars for every one dollar invested.

The Opportunity

Democrats are inarguably the education party, but we’ve missed an opportunity to put investments in children and families at the forefront of our economic agenda. That needs to change. What happens during the first five years of a child’s life greatly affects an individual’s success decades down the line.

The Democratic message needs to be clear and direct: We are the party of opportunity intent on helping parents and caregivers thrive in our economy. We need to help voters understand that everyone should have the opportunity to strike the right work-life balance. This is an idea explicitly designed to promote family values and drive economic dynamism.

This does not mean that Democrats should abandon education-related issues we’ve supported for years. We should work to make college more accessible. We should address the dropout crisis among high school students. But for many families—particularly families with little kids—Democrats must offer a clear path to a better life. Nowhere in American life is the gap wider between what we do provide and what we could provide than in the first five years of any child’s life.

Democrats need to remind voters of that fact as often as they can.

Sly James is the former mayor of Kansas City, Missouri. Winston C. Fisher is a partner at Fisher Brothers and CEO of AREA15. Both are authors of the new book The Opportunity Agenda: A Bold Democratic Plan to Grow the Middle Class (Amplify, August 4th).

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Our Schools: Bridging the Skills Gap

When kids DO go back to school, what should they expect?

By Winston Fisher and Sly James

Everyone is up in arms about schools reopening this fall—as they should be. At a bare minimum, going to school should not come with threats of bodily harm. But while most of us want schools to open—safely—not as many of us are thinking about the identity crisis facing our public schools.

Today, schools have assumed roles that twentieth century educators never envisioned: nutrition providers, counselors, advocates, therapists. To some, they merely serve as caregivers in lieu of parents with multiple jobs. (That’s the rationale behind sending them back too soon: to get parents back to work.) But when it comes to actual teaching and learning, American schools have not excelled. It’s a problem, but it’s also an opportunity.

One of the main complaints about our current system is that it does not prepare students for jobs that actually exist. Technology, automation, and disruptive change have eliminated a broad swath of “9-to-5” jobs, but many companies are woefully short of qualified applicants for “new economy” jobs. Obviously, there is a widening skills gap that no amount of standardized testing will bridge.

Instead, let’s consider innovations that tend to get lost in the “labor versus management” squabbles that have defined public school policy discussions. For example, in upstate New York’s Fulton and Montgomery counties, local businesses actually got directly involved with local curriculum. Under the program, known as Pathways Through Technology or P-TECH, graduating students would have first dibs on jobs at those companies.

Specific skills development can happen without de-emphasizing core abilities like English, math, or science. More often than not, it’s the combination of critical thinking and practical skill that makes a student the ideal job candidate. Often, it is that very combination of practical and theoretical that inspires and engages students the most.

To do all this well, our schools must also consider lengthening the school day and year, which has been successfully done in countries throughout the world. This does not mean more of the same—more lectures, more testing, more “time served.” To be more effective, a longer school year should be a combination of time at school and time practicing in a real work situation. While it’s true that simply extending time spent in class has improved proficiency in schools across the country, think about how much more opportunity will exist when students are given the chance to learn by doing.

This kind of change will not happen by itself, or by ceding control of our schools to purely private interests. It’s time for Democrats to suggest bold changes to our country’s public education system—ones that actually prepare a new generation for the workforce and provide opportunity for Americans.

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