'The Politics Of Endurance'

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Public engagement in school reform has become a hot topic lately. "It's about time" is not an unreasonable reaction, but the attention is still welcome.

The idea that citizens and parents--not just educators--can express their opinions about schooling is still catching on. I was reminded of this in a chance encounter with a veteran teacher friend. Upset with Kentucky school reform and blaming our volunteer citizens' committee for her new workload, she saw her opening at a social event. "Who authorized you?" she asked me. For emphasis, she repeated a second and then a third time, "Who authorized you?"

That democratic citizens need authorization to speak is a more pervasive view than most readers of these words want to think, but that is not the point. The point is that this view has long been pervasive among public educators, and it still prevails.

But there is a dawning awareness that ongoing and continuous school change--wrenching, stressful, systemwide change--will not happen by itself. Less delicately, it will not happen if left to educators alone.

"Reform needs legs to succeed," said Anne Hallett of the Cross City Campaign, a national organization of reform groups. These "legs" are usually citizens and parents much like the members of our organization, the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, a statewide organization of volunteers for school reform.

Among people who are thinking hard about state-level school reform, there is a growing consensus that independent and organized citizens with breadth of participation and access to policymakers and the media are needed to generate reform momentum and sustain it over time. Susan Fuhrman of the Center for Policy Research in Education has tied reform success to the larger political sphere, saying that without citizen pressure, our political processes are not up to the job of sustaining complex change over time. Independent organizations like ours offer a consistent agenda to help ease reforms through many political tenures.

This thinking applies to reforms already under way, such as the Kentucky Education Reform Act, now five years into implementation. Ponderous bureaucratic systems will surely never reach this point in reform if a movement never starts, and movements will not start by themselves. But they need time and continuity. We do not have much experience at staying on a straight and sensible reform path long enough to see results or make adjustments based on experience.

Elections, changes in legislative and administrative leadership, political trends, and fads all work against continuity. Continuity is what politicians campaign against, not for. Kentucky's five gubernatorial campaigns since 1983 illustrate today's political continuity--or lack thereof. "I'll do what the last guy did, only better" is rare in campaign commercials. "Throw out the reform and start over" is an easy alternative.

There are many reasons an independent public voice is needed. One is public confusion and/or disagreement with reform agendas in many states, the so-called disconnect between policy types and citizens reported by Public Agenda. We have found that unhappy teachers can encourage a negative public view. Parents listen to teachers, especially if they don't have access to information to make their own judgments. However inaccurate, a teacher's message that the "state won't let me teach your child the basics" is powerful and scary.

Much of the public fundamentally disagrees with the goal of reaching all children. Many parents believe that if we work to educate all children, their own children will get less. And not everyone agrees that public schools serve a valuable common purpose; some favor private alternatives outright. These disagreements need resolution through thoughtful public conversation and informed decisions. Divisive campaign ads should come last, after public talk and thinking.

From my vantage point, the need for genuine engagement is evident. We must collectively grapple with the complex issues that oversimplified political campaigns avoid. We must also hold our public servants' noses to the grindstone of generation-long change.

Where school reform is under way, engagement has moved from the "politics of emotion" to the "politics of endurance," to borrow Shirley Edwards' description of Eastern Europe's transition to democracy.

Kentucky is at that point now, attempting to sustain not only public support for KERA's reforms, but the reforms themselves. Mobilizing the public for reform and sustaining support throughout implementation of the reform are two entirely different processes.

In the 1980s, engagement meant hundreds of public forums where folks gathered to talk about their frustrations with public schools and their aspirations for their children. It meant channeling that voice to policymakers in a powerful but reasonable way, informing the media, stating and restating the problem. It meant that people found ways to speak out on complex topics and make demands of entrenched interests. Critical to the process were setting the agenda and keeping the pressure on.

Then, in 1990, the Kentucky legislature enacted a sweeping reform, beginning a school-change process to be pushed on many fronts at once, over many years, supported by revenue from a hefty tax increase.

In effect, an outraged public got what it had demanded in general terms--serious change in education law--and that victory changed the rules. Those citizens quickly decided that legislative change was not the same as classroom change and that continuing public pressure was needed.

In a nutshell, before KERA was enacted, the challenge was to demand change and channel frustration into action. Now, the challenge is to encourage patience and sustain a public voice within the agreed-upon reform agenda. Before, the public conversation was about generalities; now, it's about specifics--real programs, real schools, real teachers. Before, the common enemy was the status quo of poor educational performance; now, defenders of the status quo have the enemy--it is reform. Before, the intransigent bureaucracy was lashed by criticism; now, criticism is mixed with praise to encourage good work. Before, school reform was nonpartisan and nonideological; now, it is mainly partisan and ideological.

Whether the American public can, or will, become engaged constructively and widely around the issue of education reform is still undecided. Genuine engagement grows primarily from local circumstances, political traditions, and leadership. There is no single model. Positive interest from foundations, professional organizations, and policy thinkers is encouraging. But each of these domains has its obstacles. Foundations like programs more than process; professionals tend toward control, not empowerment; and policy wonks have typically been impatient with the slow pace of citizen learning.

The growing consensus is starting to generate common, national action. A planning team has started to struggle in earnest with fundamental questions, hoping to generate a constructive national project.

But the view that parents and citizens can and must express themselves is far more commonly accepted than it was 13 years ago when our volunteers first assembled. The "who authorized you?" crowd has weakened enough to allow citizens a say in the future of their children's education.

We'll see where it leads.

Vol. 15, Issue 12, Pages 32-34

Published in Print: November 22, 1995, as 'The Politics Of Endurance'
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