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Using the Bully Pulpit to Take a Stand in the Arena

Jessica Sutter is a former teacher and policy scholar who was elected to the Washington, D.C., Board of Education last year. Jessica started her career as an educator at a Catholic school in Chicago before ultimately founding EdPro Consulting, where she advised clients like the D.C. Public Charter School Board and the School District of Philadelphia. Jessica will be writing about her experience as an elected member of the D.C. Board and what it's like to be a policy wonk navigating the political arena.

I recently adopted a dog from the local shelter and enlisted the help of a friend and her sons in naming him. The boys declared that he needed a "social studies name" and, inspired by his affinity for carrying large branches in his mouth, christened him Theodore Roosevelt. It's a great name for a great pup and amuses me because I've always been fascinated by our 26th president. Specifically, Roosevelt's popularization of the term "bully pulpit" and his affirmation of the "man in the arena" resonate powerfully for me in my role on the D.C. State Board of Education.

Since the 1800s, the public schools of Washington, D.C. have been under 17 different governance systems. The system has been overseen by elected school boards, appointed school boards, combination elected and appointed boards, and direct federal control. In 2007, the D.C. Council voted to abolish the local school board and instate mayoral control of education. This vote also created two state-level agencies: the Office of the State Superintendent of Education and the State Board of Education.

Under the current governance system, nearly all of the education policy power is held by the office of the mayor and the council. The mayor appoints the state superintendent of education, the chancellor of the D.C. Public Schools, and all of the members of the D.C. Public Charter School Board. The council confirms all of these appointees and controls the budget for all of these agencies.

So what of the elected members of the State Board of Education? We have power to advise and approve. It is important, but it isn't much in the scope of the system. However, as the only elected officials in the District solely focused on educational issues, we have a powerful bully pulpit—a public platform and a four-year term to speak out and be heard.

I am committed to using my bully pulpit to speak out about the most intractable education issues in our city and to call to action those who have the pen to write and the purse strings to fund the kind of policy that can affect the change our children need. In the past eight months, this has looked like calling for answers on how the city is protecting our children, imploring the Council to focus new legislation on budget equity rather than more detailed reporting requirements, and suggesting a way to truly shift from school chance to school choice (h/t Naomi Shelton). Over the coming school year, this will look like leading conversations with constituents about more equitable school choice policy, elevating student voice on issues of safety, and continued advocacy to the council on adequate funding for all public schools in the District.

I believe that D.C. needs to sharply focus its education policy agenda on equity. I know I am not alone in thinking this way. But I do not hear enough from policymakers with the power to make legislative change happen. Courage, by its very nature, is not an easy thing. Politicians are people pleasers, and courage more often requires following an unpopular path.

In 1910, Roosevelt gave a speech in Paris entitled Citizenship in A Republic. He called for democracies to hold all people to a high standard, identifying "self-restraint, self-mastery, common sense, the power of accepting individual responsibility and yet of acting in conjunction with others, courage and resolution," as qualities to be sought after and celebrated in leaders and citizens alike.

Policy that is popular can certainly be important. But that a social policy be popular with constituents cannot be the most important thing in deciding what policy aims to pursue.

Too many, policy proposals in education advance because they please us—the policymakers, the adults. Courage requires that we must also champion policy that does right by children but upsets the order of things as we have come to know them. Adults in systems may need to shift our thinking, to work differently, or to lose some privilege to which we have become accustomed. Courageous policy will almost certainly challenge our established beliefs. And, even if we muster the will to pursue courageous policy for children, we may fail to build a coalition to bring it to fruition.

We may fail. But because we agreed to step into the arena, we must try. As Roosevelt is often quoted, "[T]here is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."

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