Education Opinion

A Bipartisan Agenda

By David S. Seeley — January 24, 2001 11 min read
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A unifying educational platform may be more within reach than many people realize.

My plea in these pages last year to “Make Education Less Partisan,” (May 3, 2000) did not exactly resonate with the tone of our recent presidential contest. But now that a president has been selected by such a close vote and challenged procedure, there is much talk about the need for “bipartisanism,” with education often mentioned as a prime area for implementing it.

Bipartisanism presumably would help “bind up wounds,” reflect the lack of a mandate for either party, and satisfy the public’s desire to “get something done.” Perhaps these motives can provide an opportunity to forge the greater unity that public education has needed for some time for its effective reform, and foster the kind of loyalty and social cohesion required for effective education in a diverse democratic society.

There’s one big problem, however: Defining what is “bipartisan” in education may itself become a partisan issue. Democrats may hope that “bipartisan” will mean that controversial topics such as vouchers and school prayer will be put aside so that federal funds can flow unimpeded into our present public school systems. Republicans may want to enact Republican proposals with enough Democratic votes to give them a bipartisan veneer. Members of both parties may think that all that’s needed is just “good, old-fashioned horse-trading” among the proposals currently before Congress.

None of these approaches is likely to heal wounds or bring about the kind of creative bipartisanship that this moment in history might make possible. What is needed are some overarching principles that can provide greater unity of purpose in educational reform, so that not only politicians, but also teachers, parents, students, community groups, businesses, unions, universities, and citizens of whatever party, can begin to work together more productively on an education agenda they can genuinely believe in, not only at the federal level, but at the state, local, and even school and neighborhood levels as well. Despite the many educational controversies that have received so much attention in recent years, such a unifying educational platform may be more within reach than many people realize.

There is growing consensus on a number of concepts among those trying to redesign public education. While many of these may seem obvious, they are contrary to the operating assumptions of many or most public school systems, and therefore call for fundamental change if taken seriously and implemented on a coordinated, whole-system basis.

Among those trying to redesign public education, there is a growing consensus on a number of concepts.

To be sure, there are some sharp disagreements about the best way to implement these concepts, but the basic ideas are not particularly Democratic or Republican. They can provide the basis for a unifying vision about education among the American people, as well as a better policy framework within which to resolve remaining controversies:

  • Leave no child behind was not just a Bush campaign slogan, but a reflection of a growing consensus that successful education is needed for all children, not just for the privileged. When taken seriously, this concept is a fundamental change from the traditional acceptance of low and mediocre achievement for large percentages of children. It calls for shifting not only to much higher expectations, but also to a “whatever it takes” attitude, including changes in learning opportunities from birth on, and both inside and outside of schools.
  • Teamwork at the school level, rather than centralized bureaucracies, is needed to enable schools to raise achievement to the levels now needed. While this requires a degree of school autonomy, the basic change is one of organizational culture promoted by the whole system and not just a mechanical adding of school councils to bureaucratically run schools.
  • Real partnership with families and community resources. Almost all schools by now give at least lip service to the importance of parent involvement, but lip service is not enough. Real collaboration of home, school, and community is needed to support high achievement for all students, and has to be worked for, rather than just expected—especially in schools where it is most needed and where such partnership is sorely lacking.
President Bush’s “leave no child behind” campaign slogan relfects a fundamental change from the traditional acceptance of low and mediocre achievement for large percentages of children.
  • Accountability for results, rather than just for following bureaucratic rules, should make everyone—not just students and parents alone, and not just teachers and schools alone—responsible for achieving educational goals. Education must be seen as a shared responsibility, starting especially with the students themselves, and not just a function delegated to a government agency that only needs to be “held accountable” in order for high levels of student learning and character development somehow to result.
  • Quality teaching is emerging as an obvious prerequisite to quality learning, and therefore improved teacher recruitment, pay, professional development, and working conditions are no longer just demands from teacher unions. They can be supported by all interests, so long as they are part of a comprehensive vision that also calls for accountability for results and teamwork in achieving them.
  • Choice in education is increasingly seen as desirable: to allow parents and teachers to create settings that meet their particular educational needs and values; to foster the teamwork, partnership, and loyalty that promote learning; and to loosen the monolithic bureaucracy that has so stifled public education in recent decades. While there is disagreement over how best to provide choice, the support of both political parties for the growing charter school movement is evidence that consensus in this area is possible.

These six concepts are no longer just abstractions. They are the basis for policies and actions substantially different from more traditional school reform, and they are starting to take concrete shape, especially in a number of statewide efforts.

Kentucky is perhaps the most notable example, since it enacted its whole-system reform vision, based on many of the above principles, in a single, comprehensive law: the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990. Although it was enacted by a Democratic legislature and governor, key Republican and business leaders backed the radical new reform vision, and its basic framework is now widely accepted on a nonpartisan basis in Kentucky.

Bipartisan school reform is already beginning to take shape in the states.

North Carolina and Texas are also examples of states that have developed more unified visions of whole-system reform, based on these principles, that have gained support among Republican and Democratic governors, legislators, and civic, business, and educational leaders. The resulting unity of purpose for over a decade has produced better results than in states that have continued with piecemeal reforms that fail to mobilize people for unified effort and nonpartisan collaboration.

The federal level has not yet achieved a “whole system” reform vision on a bipartisan basis. When former President Bush called the 1989 education summit—the first such gathering of the president and state governors to discuss educational policy in American history—he got the bipartisan support of Republican and Democratic governors by agreeing to adopt national education goals the governors had worked out, much to their credit, on a bipartisan basis earlier in the 1980s. But the summit did not produce agreement on a platform for whole-system reform to achieve the six goals.

Under President Bush’s America 2000 and President Clinton’s Goals 2000, some individual states and communities began to mobilize on a more comprehensive basis to achieve the six national education goals. And in the spring of 1994, Congress, with bipartisan support, added professional development and parental involvement to the original six goals, thus touching on two of the principles of whole-system reform set out above. But the “Republican revolution” that followed the 1994 elections stifled further bipartisan efforts aimed at a unified national vision for systemic reform, and shifted the focus at the federal level more to areas of disagreement.

Disagreements in education can be emotional and hard to resolve. But working together on what can be agreed to can create a more productive atmosphere for resolving disputes.

Working together on what can be agreed on can create a more productive atmosphere for resolving disputes.

At the national level, moreover, our federal system of governance may provide ways to deal creatively with some of these controversies. As a junior partner in public education, without direct operational responsibility for the schools, the federal government doesn’t have to resolve all educational issues. Some controversial ones might better be left to the states, districts, and individual schools to work out.

Choice is the most obvious place for this strategy. While increased choice in education should be part of a national education platform, its implementation raises very emotional issues of church- state relations and the future of public education. Many predict that the U.S. Supreme Court may soon loosen federal constitutional restrictions on government aid for religious schools, leaving this passion-filled issue to be resolved more through political debate and state-court rulings under varying state constitutional church-state provisions.

Furthermore, quite aside from church- state issues, it’s not easy to figure out the best way to provide choice. How do we gain its advantages, while minimizing problems such as “creaming” the most ambitious families away from regular public schools and undermining support for public education? Different states and school systems have different needs and conditions and may well work out different solutions. To try to come up with a single federal policy on educational choice may be impractical and might undermine rather than foster the unity of purpose we now need to move forward.

Testing policy is another area that may best be left to the states. It is turning out to be much more complicated than the basic principle of shifting more to accountability for results, rather than bureaucratic control. Once tests start to be used seriously for accountability, more questions emerge about what standards are best and the best way to assess their achievement to avoid “teaching to the test,” cheating, and stifling teacher and student motivation. States are experimenting to find the best combinations of standards, assessments, and accountability, and perhaps such experimentation is healthier than trying to decide at the federal level on a single system for the whole nation.

The danger of leaving too many decisions to existing state and local school systems is that pressures within these systems often stifle real reform.

Working out the specifics on moral and character education is yet another area where decentralized decisionmaking may help avoid policy controversy and paralysis at higher levels. Whole-system reform requires restoring an emphasis on values, if for no other reason than the obvious connection between student responsibility and high academic achievement. But just as most states are finding that it’s best to leave debates about the specific values to be taught to the school level, so it is also probably sensible to keep these debates off the federal agenda as well. A new bipartisan school reform platform should not, however, make the same mistake that so many school systems have, by virtually eliminating character development from their agendas.

The danger of leaving too many decisions to existing state and local school systems is that pressures within these systems often stifle real reform. So long as basic principles such as those outlined above are insisted upon in federal policy, however, and are supported by national, state, and local political and nongovernmental leaders, there is more chance that public education will at long last get the fundamental redesign it so desperately needs.

The opportunity presented by an unprecedented presidential transition can provide the impetus for forging the unity on education so clearly needed.

Will it take a new education summit to cement bipartisan agreement on such a whole-system education reform platform? A meeting of governors is one way to recognize that, under our Constitution, the states have the prime responsibility for reforming public education, that governors pay a higher price than federal politicians for partisanship in education, and that some states are doing a better job than the federal government in forging bipartisan platforms to achieve real reform. But a summit of governors and the president would leave out the Congress, which will play a major role in determining whether we move more toward unity or partisanship in federal education policy.

Whatever the methods used, the clear need for more unity on education and the opportunity provided by an unprecedented presidential transition can provide the impetus for forging it. Leadership from the White House, Congress, and the various stakeholder organizations will determine whether we unite under a common platform or continue with the bickering that has thus far dishonored our obligation to provide the best for our children and for the future of our society.

David S. Seeley, who served as an assistant U.S. commissioner of education during the Johnson administration, is the author of Education Through Partnership (Ballinger, 1981) and a professor at the City University of New York and the College of Staten Island. He is currently working on a study of Kentucky’s school reform.

A version of this article appeared in the January 24, 2001 edition of Education Week as A Bipartisan Agenda


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