Friday, December 3, 2010

Silver Linings

It's probably no surprise to regular readers of this blog that I'm a Democrat. That said, in my professional life, I have worked for non-partisan and non-profit organizations committed to working with public officials of all political persuasions. And I think that both political parties -- as well as political independents -- are potential partners in improving pubic education. Nonetheless, I can't honestly say that November 2010 was an uplifting month from my (electoral) perspective.

But this is the Education OPTIMISTS blog, right? I guess I'm a little self-aware in that I recognize that a majority of my posts grouse about something or other and too few are offered in a truly optimistic vein. So here is my attempt at weaving a silk purse from an elephant's(?) ear.

Newly elected Republican governors and state legislators have opportunities to improve education in ways that some of their Democratic counterparts may not. They may be more politically willing and able to take on certain vestiges of the education status quo that may not be research-based, may not be working, and may be not be in service of student outcomes. I'm talking about things like the traditional steps-and-lanes teacher salary schedule, the length of the school day and year, and largely purposeless teacher evaluation systems. They may be able to construct new human capital systems and reform outdated school practices and processes. Certainly, these opportunities will vary depending upon numerous contextual factors, including state systems of educational governance, the intellectual and policy foundations for such work, the existence of non-governmental advocates and thought partners, existing vehicles for collaboration (such as p-16 councils), etc.

A number of past Republican governors emerged as leaders, or so-called "education governors." Some that immediately come to mind are former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, former Ohio Gov. Bob Taft, outgoing Alabama Gov. Bob Riley, and former Tennessee Gov. (and current U.S. Senator) Lamar Alexander (who also served as U.S Education Secretary under President George H.W. Bush).

That said, here's where my pessimism takes over. There are certainly members of the current Republican gubernatorial circle that are certainly not in the running for such an earned label, such as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. With less than a year in office, he has moved in a decidedly confrontational direction. His actions and rhetoric makes him better suited for talk radio than as a collaborative education governor who needs to work with a Democratic-controlled state legislature and, yes, with teachers. Christie is casting himself as a modern-day Archie Bunker and is relishing the attention and headlines he is getting. The sad fact is that such rhetoric is what garners attention in today's media rather than the dogged policy work that actually changes the equation for students and teachers.

Christie seems to think that leadership consists of rhetoric rather than results. And that's dangerous if our collective goal is the creation of meaningful reform as opposed to simply talk or threats of it. Christie has attacked his own state's relatively good educational performance in order to further his demonizing of the state teachers' union, which appears to be his primary priority. He fired his first education commissioner who dared to strike a compromise with teachers around New Jersey's aborted Race to the Top application. That former commissioner said that the Governor "placed fighting with the state teachers unions and his persona on talk radio above education reform." Good luck to those who seek to thrust him upon America as a 2012 candidate for President.

My fear is that there those within the ranks of new Republican governors that are more likely to fashion themselves in the style of Christie than as "old school" education governors. Texas Governor Rick Perry's ascension to head the RGA probably doesn't help either.

With the exception of the 12 Race to the Top winners, one challenge that these new office holders of both parties will face is the distinct lack of new resources to inject into the educational system, either from state or federal sources. They won't be able to buy reforms by increasing education funding or refashion teacher pay with a major infusion of cash.

My hope is that governors of both parties will seek to work with educators to accomplish their policy objectives rather than force their desires onto them. There is good evidence to suggest that collaboration leads to more resilient and relevant policies that are likely to trickle down to actually change practices and processes within classrooms and schools. That's where the real work gets done.

I am hopeful that some quiet leaders will emerge.

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