Education policy is both blessed and cursed by its bipartisan nature. Republicans and Democrats can agree on 90 percent of their goals for the nation's school system, and yet the details are often mired in strong political crosswinds. "In order to be able to persevere through the challenges, you have no permanent friends or permanent enemies in this work," said Jason Williams, executive director of Massachusetts Stand for Children.
Williams is a perfect example of this phenomenon. He was once a teachers' union representative, yet he found himself battling teachers unions in Massachusetts over a ballot initiative stating that teacher performance should take precedence over seniority. Stand for Children eventually dropped its ballot initiative campaign in favor of state legislation that puts teacher performance ahead of seniority in staffing decisions.
The education maze is difficult enough to navigate that politicians are likely to steer clear of taking controversial positions. One needs to look no farther than the presidential election to illustrate this fact. President Obama has couched his education platform in economic terms, focusing on the politically safe topics of reining in college tuition and increasing graduation rates. He has been silent on the trickier issues within the Democratic party, like teacher effectiveness or accountability. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has taken aim at the teachers unions in his education agenda, which he has not discussed or expanded since he unveiled it in May. He says education officials should elevate parents and students over "special interests."
"Nobody's got it completely right," said Williams, noting that his group has disagreements with both Republicans and Democrats. Any substantive policy changes are "going to require both Republicans and Democrats to be working together."
Is it realistic to think that different educational constituencies can be "friends" in certain areas and "enemies" in others? Are there partisan "litmus tests" in education that cannot be violated under any circumstances? How can people representing different perspectives learn to trust one another? What are the makings of a constructive conversation around education policy? Should political candidates delve more deeply into the details to bolster the dialogue?