Alumni Stories: Levi Bohanan
The Equity Architect
Levi Bohanan has found a home in the Biden administration as he advocates for marginalized youth and families
When Levi Bohanan (CPRL Spring 2019) was a high school senior in Texas, his parents kicked him out because he was gay. With few resources, he wasn’t sure he’d be able to graduate from high school, let alone attend college.
“I didn’t know, initially, that I qualified as an ‘unaccompanied youth,’” Bohanan says. The term describes youth who are not in the physical custody of parents or guardians. It applies to some 700,000 of the estimated 4.2 million youth and young adults who experience homelessness each year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. “But I was very fortunate—I had caring teachers who knew what services I was entitled to and who helped me get financial assistance and navigate the college application process. When I got to college”—Texas A & M University, where he majored in political science and served on the Student Senate—“I thought about the role of teachers in my life and in the lives of students every day across the nation, and I realized I wanted to work at the intersection of education and policy.”
Bohanan has gone on to do just that. He is currently Special Assistant in the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education within the U.S. Department of Education (ED). He also served in the Department during the Obama administration, securing funding and civil rights protection for homeless students under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.
“There’s a big under-identification of the problem of students considered homeless,” he says. “Like me, they may not know that they fit that definition.”
Bohanan takes a systemic approach to ensuring equity and social justice for marginalized young people, acutely mindful that labels such as “homeless” can affect their opportunities and, ultimately, their lives. He derived both motivation and insight from his own early experiences. “Fending for yourself day to day, not having parents at your high school graduation, not being able to share holidays with your family, that changes the way you pass through the world,” he told ABC News in 2016. But he also credits CPRL for giving him tools to help bring about meaningful change.
“I found in grad school that my work was satisfying only up to a point,” says Bohanan, who earned a master’s in Education Policy Analysis from Columbia University’s Teachers College in 2020. “You do all this research and then it doesn’t go anywhere—it doesn’t change anything. CPRL gave me the chance to make an impact, coached by individuals who have been in the field longer than I’ve been alive.”
For his CPRL student project, Bohanan worked with a network of education agencies as it refined its mission after the agencies had successfully advocated for increased state standards and testing flexibility for students.
“The network’s member groups had tremendous expertise and wanted others to benefit from their work,” he recalls.
“I really learned to do a high-quality, rigorous interview,” he says. “It’s one thing to follow a script, and another to receive expert feedback about what you might have done differently. That’s something you don’t always get in the work space.”
The process has paid dividends on two counts. Today, the network Bohanan assisted continues to do “great work in collecting equity-related data and putting it out there in a way that states don’t.” And Bohanan himself is applying a deeper understanding of how to apply CPRL’s focus on Evolutionary Learning, which calls for the continuous iteration of theories of action based on what’s actually happening on the ground.
“The bigger the system, the more you’ve got to ask whether what’s true for one district is also true for others,” he says. “Each school and each district serve different communities and individuals, and while there are constants—schools benefit from federal investment, investments in pre-K and early childhood learning are key, and many communities of color are under-invested in—how you address those issues may vary widely from case to case.”
Bohanan is particularly cognizant of that variety right now as ED works with states and districts to implement the 2021 American Rescue Plan Act, which includes $122 billion to support schools in safely reopening and meeting students’ social, emotional, mental health and academic needs. Beyond distributing the funds, ED is working to ensure that recipients have the flexibility to address specific local needs and that students furthest from opportunity receive critical resources.
“The pandemic has forced us to look at how some systems have never worked for low-income students and students of color. We’ve had to step back and address these systemic inequities."
“Education policy now is totally tied up in COVID-19,” he says. “The pandemic has forced us to look at how some systems have never worked for low-income students and students of color. We’ve had to step back and address these systemic inequities, and the administration is committed to keeping that work going.”
“One of the biggest concerns is about the loss of learning resulting from operating remotely during the pandemic,” he says. “We have to work together to identify students who have been lost in the COVID shuffle, re-engage them, and give them the tools to help recover what they’ve lost.” Much like the network that Bohanan supported while at CPRL, the Biden administration is also trying to harvest the knowledge of people working on the ground.
“It would be hard to find a better example of rapidly iterating and adjusting than how districts and schools learned to adapt in the face of the pandemic,” Bohanan says. “Especially at the beginning of the pandemic, when there was an absence of federal guidance, schools had to learn what worked on their own. Now the administration has invested in sharing those lessons through a variety of means, including the Safer Schools and Practices Best Practices Clearinghouse. We’re holding biweekly webinars at which practitioners from around the country share mitigation strategies that address issues such as social and emotional health and learning.”
Bohanan says he is finding personal satisfaction right now in being able to address issues that resonate so closely with his own experience. But he’s also hopeful that the nation may be ripe for broader change—for example, around issues such as childcare, which he focused on as an entrepreneur-in-residence at the think tank Next100, just prior to joining the Biden administration.
“The next generation includes a massive coalition of childcare supporters who transcend political affiliation, race, gender, and income,” he wrote in an opinion piece published on the Fortune website. “Significant majorities of Democrats, Republicans, and independents recognize access to high-quality, affordable childcare as an important issue, with overwhelming support among men and women and across major racial and ethnic categories.”
That kind of consensus, he says, is precisely what the Biden administration is tapping into now.
“There’s such a robust conversation now about how education intersects with the workforce, gender and racial equity, health and human services and labor. The administration is going 90 miles per hour on these equity issues every day, because we see an unprecedented opportunity as well as an obligation to move forward.”
In Their Own Words
Our alumni network now includes more than 500 leaders, advocates, and champions dedicated to improving school systems and other public sectors. Some alumni work directly with teachers, families, and students, ensuring access to high-quality education. Others work indirectly—supporting improvement from inside private sector organizations. In Their Own Words captures the many and varied ways our alumni lead and improve organizations in education and other public sectors.
About the Author
Joe Levine writes about education, law, science and medicine, and health care. His work has appeared in Time, LIFE, Money, Newsday, and many university magazines.