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Are Outsiders Good for 'Laboratories of Democracy'?

One cliché has consistently influenced the debate over the role of states in making policy: They are "laboratories of democracy" where governments closer to the people than Uncle Sam come up with the best solutions. This view is not necessarily split along neat political lines—and doesn't enjoy universal popularity.

In an upcoming story for the print edition of Education Week, I touch on a few states where high-profile policy initiatives like 3rd grade retention are facing some resistance from lawmakers. But I also wanted to let one or two people sound off on how legislators' roles may or may not have shifted.

One could compare recent developments in the policy-making world to "waves" in corporate merger activity. Today, an amalgamation of advocates, think tanks, and other political operatives can deliver variety packs of legislation, talking points, and "ideas" to lawmakers for easy transport back to their offices. Of course the influence industry has been around for some time, but its depth, breadth and speed all seem to have increased.

Do model bills, for example, mean lawmakers can't or won't consistently engage in the innovation others are often pressing them to embrace? Does changing a state law or policy using ideas that are new to the state, but not original, equal creativity? Does it matter? Is it unfair to ask whether state lawmakers are increasingly serving as lab rats instead of lab scientists?

For Sherman Dorn, a professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa, the answer is clear. States have increasingly ceded their roles as laboratories of democracy, and have turned over policymaking and ideological energy to the U.S. government or other advocates.

Dorn, who is a skeptic of policies being pushed by conservative-leaning education groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council, says there are two possible explanations for situations where legislators reassert themselves in some areas.

"To the extent that legislators are pushing back a little bit, some of it may be from a sense of, 'Hey, we shouldn't be taking orders from people in other states.' But some of it may reflect citizen activism in the last year or so," he said, citing the backlash from the public that led to the repeal of Ohio's Senate Bill 5 (which would have curtailed union rights) last year.

Approaching the questions in a somewhat different way, Marcus Winters, an assistant professor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, argued there is simply an increasing amount of data on education policy issues that didn't exist three decades ago that "not all policymakers are really prepared to grapple with on their own."

But Winters, who favors the use of test scores to evaluate teachers and says recent data on 3rd grade retention shows it can work well, said this also means that legislators can feel more comfortable taking action once they have more and better numbers. The broader question, he said, is whether this development means the education policy debate is beginning to resemble other policy debates.

"The shift towards quantitative research makes it both more and less difficult for policymakers," Winters said.

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