The Unavoidable Politics of Education Reform

In K–12 education, politics is the great equalizer. It has killed initiatives from the right and from the left, from top-down district curriculum mandates to site-based management. Common Core State Standards, test-based accountability, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s effort to improve teacher quality all fell prey to political backlash. Charter schools haven’t died of politics yet, but it is slowing down their expansion.

Some would say, ‘There is reform and then there is politics, and politics always wins.’ We at CRPE disagree. We think reform is inherently political and that initiatives fail when they treat politics as something best ignored. Though there are times when opposition is too strong, no alignment of political forces is permanent, and there are often things policymakers can do to build support and weaken opposition to changes they believe will benefit students.

Reforms naturally require changes in how people work, where money goes, and what actions are valued or downgraded. Inevitably, these politics of implementation create uncertainties and resistance, especially from those who benefit greatly from the status quo. For any reform that promises to help students, the question is always how strong will resistance be, and whether the initiative can attract enough support to overcome the opposition. As our book Strife and Progress: Portfolio Strategies For Managing Urban Schools (Brookings, 2012) concluded:

Conflict is proof neither of the failure nor of the success of a school reform strategy. Conflict only means that issues once considered settled are up again for discussion. In all likelihood, the more significant the reform—or more accurately, the less incremental the change on who benefits and to what degree—the more overt the conflict in its implementation.

In education, reforms often get started on a modest scale with government or foundation money, but stall out when increasing scale generates opposition. Reformers who expect their idea to get such sensational results that opposition melts away are usually wrong: Results—even if good—are always uneven; benefits to other groups don’t cut much ice with those who are happy with the status quo.

We at CRPE have long thought that a strategy for attracting allies and surviving opposition needs to be an intrinsic element of every reform proposal. Since as early as 2000, we have been writing about the politics of education reform ideas as diverse as charter schools, school choice, the Common Core, city-based portfolio reform strategies, and leadership by chief state school officers. Strife and Progress even included a chapter on how local portfolio strategies could survive and grow again after big political setbacks.

These publications benefit from thoughtful contributions by educators, state and local officials, advocacy group leaders, parents, and other academics. CRPE is committed to taking the questions of politics in education head on; you can anticipate more such analyses in the future.

Tomorrow we’re rolling out one of two new reports in our politics series. Collision Course: Embracing Politics To Succeed in District-Charter Collaboration, by Ashley Jochim, Sarah Yatsko and Alice Opalka, examines local collaborations between districts and charter schools. Though charters and districts compete for students, they also share an interest in the overall quality of schools in their localities and can benefit by collaborating on everything from facilities to special education to teacher training. The paper shows that while the two parties might never resolve all their conflicts, they can strike bargains that benefit them both and, more importantly, students.

Next week we’ll publish Unlocking Potential: How Political Skill Can Maximize Superintendent Effectiveness, by Paul Hill and Ashley Jochim. It shows how school superintendents, despite limited powers, can accomplish a great deal by building coalitions with groups that often sit on the sidelines and by building reputations of political competence. The paper should be a resource for current and aspiring superintendents; for community leaders who advise, collaborate with, or hire superintendents; for professors in schools of education; and for other entities offering district leaders’ pre-service training.

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