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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. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Education, Polarization, and Protest

By Guest Blogger — December 23, 2016 5 min read
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Note: This week, Sara Dahill-Brown , assistant professor of political science at Wake Forest University, will be guest-blogging. See her eariler posts here and here.

Wednesday, I expressed hope that state-led political processes will yield more durable, responsive reforms in the coming years, and suggested this will be more likely if reformers and leaders can hold some of their ideal policies a bit more lightly and commit to developing agendas and policies more democratically.

However, I was purposeful in describing myself as hopeful, rather than optimistic. There are many challenges inherent in those two efforts, not the least of which is that the same forces cultivating gridlock and acrimony, mitigating against compromise in Congress are also at work in statehouses around the country. So, in my last post this week, I want to discuss briefly how I see changes in educational politics interacting with a major change in state politics—specifically polarization.

Throughout U.S. history, educational politics have regularly been influenced by reformers’ assertions that the ugliness of partisan conflict has little place in school policy. Insisting that something is not political is of course quite political, but it also turns out to be fairly compelling—both as a norm and a policy rationale. During the Progressive era, arguments in this vein helped spur the adoption and maintenance of laws and regulations aimed at holding partisan politics at bay.

For a century, these mechanisms made voting in school board elections more difficult, kept turnout low in state and local education elections, and produced advantages for the most organized and interested groups, which has often meant teachers’ unions and associations. Generally, this has isolated education from broader partisan debates, creating policy change that is slow, incremental, and negotiated. Jeffrey Henig has aptly named this as a sort of exceptionalism, and documented the ways it has been challenged over the last two decades as governors, mayors, legislatures, courts, and reformers have drawn educational politics out of its silo.

So, educational politics are becoming less local, more closely tied to national politics, and more integrated with larger partisan debates. On one hand, this should mean education is higher on public agendas; on the other, divides between the parties are becoming more pronounced. In June of 2016, Pew reported record animosity between Democrats and Republicans, in spite of the fact that the policy preferences of most citizens are not so different from one another.

In 2013, for about half of state legislatures there was greater ideological distance between Democratic and Republican members than could be found in Congress. Further, that gap appears to be growing in most states over time, though as always there are many different patterns worth noting among the states. Boris Shor observes that in most chambers Republicans are growing more conservative and driving polarization, though in a smaller but significant number it is Democrats who are becoming more liberal.

Political scientists worry about polarization and gridlock, because as Nolan McCarty explains they get in the way of “negotiation, compromise, and good governance.” Why polarization has increased in not especially clear, though two theories I find compelling. One suggests that polarization is more likely around a policy issue that is nationalized, since legislators are likely to have access to different information and stronger cues from party leadership. Another theory suggests that polarization may be driven by inequality.

Just how rising polarization in state houses will impact educational politics is likely to be contingent on a variety of additional factors, though I happen to have stumbled across encounters unfolding in two states: Wisconsin and North Carolina. In both places, educational politics seem not so much to have been swallowed by, as realigned with broader partisan disputes, as Democratic and Republican lawmakers adopted sharply different stances on teacher training, salaries, benefits, vouchers, and working conditions.

In February of 2011, I found myself (for the second time) in a state where Democratic legislators were so distressed with the agenda of the Republican majority that they left the state to prevent a quorum. Fourteen Democratic representatives fled Wisconsin for Illinois so that the Senate could not vote on a bill to end collective bargaining, part of Governor Walker’s plan to cope with a massive deficit and simultaneously deal a blow to a political opponent. (The first time was in 2003, when Democratic lawmakers fled Texas over redistricting reform.) Thousands rallied at the state capital in Madison for weeks, many of them teachers.

Shortly afterwards, I moved to North Carolina, and the 2012 presidential election ushered in veto-proof majorities in both the upper and lower houses of the North Carolina legislature. By April of 2013, unified control of the state government had enabled legislators and the governor to enact a number of major laws, including a budget that left teacher pay flat, and a bill to end career status, and the Moral Monday protests began.

The two states are rather different in their approach to educational governance. In Wisconsin, there are many institutional buffers between education politics and broader state politics, more than 400 school districts and a one-time strong teachers’ union. Wisconsin is, or was, close to the archetypal version of educational politics you might find depicted in textbooks on the governance of American schools. In North Carolina, our educational politics have been much more closely tied to the partisan politics that govern other important issues in the state for a long time. There are also no teachers’ unions, though there are associations.

The two states are positioned similarly in terms of national politics. Both state legislatures are more polarized than Congress; both are considered to be swing states during presidential elections, though North Carolina is less firmly in that category than Wisconsin; both states elected Republican leaders to control both houses of the legislature as well as the governorship after long periods of Democratic or divided party control (during the 2010 midterms for Wisconsin and the 2012 election for North Carolina); and polarization has increased sharply in both legislatures, in particular since the 2010 midterm elections.

Education, schools, and teachers are now at the center of extraordinarily partisan fights in these states. The disputes have gone on for years and reverberated throughout state politics and the school system. We may not see such dramatic events play out in other highly polarized states, but this is almost certainly an aspect of state government to keep your eyes on.

Thanks to Rick for inviting me to blog for the week, and thanks to Grant at AEI for all of his assistance along the way. I wish you readers a happy, healthy holiday!

—Sara Dahill-Brown

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.