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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform.

Education Opinion

A Wonk in the Political Arena

By Guest Blogger — August 12, 2019 3 min read

Jessica Sutter is a former teacher and policy scholar who was elected to the Washington, D.C., Board of Education last year. Jessica started her career as an educator at a Catholic school in Chicago before ultimately founding EdPro Consulting, where she advised clients like the D.C. Public Charter School Board and the School District of Philadelphia. Jessica will be writing about her experience as an elected member of the D.C. Board and what it’s like to be a policy wonk navigating the political arena.

I have a confession: I am an education policy wonk. A self-identified #edunerd.

And more recently, I became a policymaker. In November 2018, I was elected to serve as the Ward 6 representative on the D.C. State Board of Education (SBOE). I was sworn in this past January to serve a four-year term, helping approve state-level education policy for the District of Columbia. What does “state policy” look like in the not-yet-a-state jurisdiction I represent? The role of the SBOE is to approve policies that affect all public schools in D.C., including both DCPS and public charter schools. This responsibility includes state academic standards, state-level assessments, state plans to comply with federal law, such as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), and high school graduation requirements. Perfect for a policy wonk, right?

But in reality, it is a rather odd fit.

The job of a wonk is to know things; the job of an elected policymaker, a politician, is to do things. As an expert, you are expected to understand your field so well you obsess over and can debate the most minor details of policy. You need to read copiously, analyze policy from multiple perspectives, and evaluate policy efficacy based on data and goals.

As a public official, your job is to serve your constituents, and to craft and pass policy that you can realistically enact, is cost effective, and is politically palatable. To do this requires listening to various constituencies, building coalitions, and taking action to make change happen.

Being effective at understanding and analyzing policy does not prepare a person to navigate the waters of balancing competing human interests to implement policy. Being facile with policy, in theory, does not prepare you to be a force in the political arena that policy requires. Being a wonk doing politics is a daily exercise in professional code-switching.

Politics is a visceral human endeavor. And despite many protestations to the contrary, politics is deeply intertwined with public education. Politics is about power, influence, and who gets what, when, and how. In education, politics is about competing conceptions in the purpose of public schools, the values we teach children, the zero-sum budgets which never keep pace with student needs, the resource inequities rooted in structural racism, the real anger, sadness, and loss felt by people in neglected communities, and the persistent hope of those same community members for better educational opportunities for their children.

One of my favorite graduate school professors, Betty Malen, writes eloquently about policy and politics. She says, in a chapter of the textbook for a course I am teaching this fall, “The political dimensions of [policy] implementation both warrant and require thoughtful examination, not because the politics surrounding educational issues and initiatives can be tamed, but because politics is a reality that shapes what we have the inclination, capacity, and opportunity to do as policy actors, professional educators, and civic agents.” Or, more simply put: We cannot eliminate politics in education, but no policy idea ever fully survives exposure to the political process.

Policy creation in the political arena is a game of trade-offs. What can we do given the reality of how difficult implementation will be? Is this the best time to prioritize this specific issue? What can we get funded in this year’s budget? Who will help champion this idea? What compromises will be made to get enough votes? All of these trade-offs have complex consequences for the kind of educational opportunities we provide to children and for who wins and who loses in any given decision. Navigating this work as a policy expert offers the benefit of deep understanding of the calculus of the wins and losses associated with various trade-offs. Such expertise can also breed frustration when well-crafted policy ideas are diluted, amended, or wholly thwarted by the political process.

As I head into my first full school year as a SBOE representative, I’ll continue navigating this wonk/politician dynamic on several big policy issues. I’ll write more Wednesday about the act of weighing competing demands on the issue of school choice and enrollment lotteries.

Jessica Sutter

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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