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How Politics Can Enhance the Work of School Reform

This month, Rick is out catching up on various and sundry projects that piled up during the rollout of Letters to a Young Education Reformer. In his stead, we've got a terrific slate of guest bloggers. Up this week is Ashley Jochim, a senior research analyst at the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington.

I live in Seattle, a deeply "blue," progressive city. There are a lot of great things about being surrounded by people passionate about public policy and willing to exert their political muscles to fight for the things they care about, whether that may be protesting the Trump administration's immigration policy or fighting for a higher minimum wage.

But there's a down side to the political uniformity in my hometown (and others like it around the country). When no one is around to disagree with you or engage in rational debate, it's pretty easy to fall into a trap of assuming the moral high ground and disparaging those who may hold a different perspective. Political uniformity can breed contempt.

One consequence of this problem is growing intolerance for compromise. In American politics today, bargaining is frowned upon and open debate is discouraged. If you are a liberal in the rural South, or a conservative on the "left coast," you know that it is better to be quiet than attacked. Members of Congress and state legislators know that working with the other party puts them at risk of being labeled "weak," and compromise means you lack principles.

Education isn't immune to these challenges. Earlier this year, I was attacked in a local social media forum focused on advocating for increasing funding for public schools. (I am a parent of two public school children and a supporter of additional funding!) The reason? I work for an organization that receives philanthropic support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. As my colleague Robin Lake wrote on this blog back in 2012, "Education reform has become one gigantic, clich├ęd collection of logical fallacies: guilt by association, ad hominem attacks, and so on. People are afraid to voice reasonable ideas or concerns for fear of being painted as disloyal to their usual cause." Or as Rick Hess put it earlier this year, "Today's school reform community bears an eerie resemblance to the education schools that I fled...they have taken to greeting dissent by accusing dissenters of being contrary or unserious about school improvement."

This pattern is troubling for a lot of reasons but hurt feelings is the least of them. You see, while K-12 public education aims to benefit children, it depends on support from adults. Parents, teachers, taxpayers, civil rights groups, universities, neighborhood leaders, and city leaders all agree that education is important, but they inevitably disagree about what children should learn, how much taxpayers should contribute, and who should get a chance to teach or run a school. No two groups see matters exactly the same way, so agreement is not automatic.

Politics is the process we've established for negotiating among competing interests, ideas, and values. As David Brooks wrote in an op-ed last year, "Politics is an activity in which you recognize the simultaneous existence of different groups, interests, and opinions. You try to find some way to balance or reconcile or compromise those interests, or at least a majority of them."

Politics, of course, never results in perfect solutions. As Brooks points out, negotiation often produces ambiguity and leaves a lot of people unhappy. But it can also be powerful by giving individuals a reason to buy into the process and, more importantly, offer policymakers a fighting chance at solving public problems over the longer-term. Thus, when we cast aside someone or something as "politics," we're not just dismissing a fundamental part of the democratic process, we're also undermining our ability to solve problems many of us agree need to be addressed.

Over the last year, Paul Hill and I have spent a lot of time thinking about how politics might be an asset to reform-minded state chiefs and local superintendents. Many of the leaders we talked to offered thoughtful examples of how politics can enhance, rather than constrain, the work of school reform. Despite the limits of their office and the limited formal powers available to them, they told us stories of how they bargained for meaningful reforms and gained buy-in from previously inactive groups, thereby increasing the likelihood the reforms they desired lasted well beyond their time in office.

None of this provides any guarantees. Political wins can be challenged, as the fight over charter schools, Common Core, and other reforms have demonstrated. But this work is better than using brute force to get things done. As Winston Churchill famously explained, "Democracy is the worst system of government, except for all the others."

—Ashley Jochim

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