This is a story of how I got schooled.
Last November, I was a high school social studies teacher. Then I won an election to the state legislature’s House of Representatives. I was part of that angry teacher wave that stormed the Oklahoma Capitol last spring, and this was my way of continuing the fight to secure better education policy in our state.
If only it were that simple.
After winning the election in November, I was given a one-month deadline to draft my first bills. How do you write a bill? Surprisingly, a career in teaching U.S. government does little to prepare you for that. The workings of a state bureaucracy and its budgetary process are quite arcane and idiosyncratic. I started out by borrowing ideas from others. I filed a bill to amend a law on teacher mentoring—based on suggestions from another teacher-legislator who had just lost her re-election bid—and a bill on behalf of the Oklahoma Education Association to take the A-F letter grade out of our state’s annual school evaluation report.
In government there exists a concept known as the iron triangle. It describes the confluence of bureaucrats, lobbyists, and politicians around whom policy gets made (or unmade). I soon received a 101 course in how that works. Not too long into the term, I received a visit from the state superintendent of education and some of her policy team. They had invested a great deal of time in developing the system and didn’t want it changed.
I argued that the A-F system oversimplified what goes on in our schools, unfairly stigmatizes schools in poor neighborhoods, and encourages apples-to-oranges comparisons. No dice. My bill disappeared from the committee agenda.
My mentoring bill had a more tortured history. It made the committee calendar. I went around promoting the bill to my colleagues, only to discover that lobbyists were working against me. It turns out the Chamber of Commerce, an alliance of state business interests, opposed my changes to the law—the very law they had sponsored the year before.
The 'we' my lobbyist friend referred to did not include me, or most of the rank-and-file teachers. That's part of the problem.
No matter—I brought the bill to committee and debated points with veteran lawmakers. With the help of some other newly elected educators, the bill was passed out of committee. The next step was getting it on the floor calendar. But a funny thing happened on the way to the forum: My bill disappeared. The Republican leadership placed a hold on the bill saying my amendment to the law was “premature.” I was advised by lobbyists from the Cooperative Council for School Administrators to go ask the Chamber of Commerce if we could work out our differences.
I met the legislative liaison for the chamber in a gleaming steel and glass monument to the oil industry. She told me that the Chamber of Commerce found it premature to amend the mentoring bill. Data gathered from other states, she explained, show that this law creates incentives for teachers over the long term. Though she did concede that “we have no vote on this.”
I learned a lot from the process. On one level, I had behaved like a bull in a china shop. With little knowledge of the process, I had threatened existing policies and interest groups. I learned that the proper way to go about things is to bring together the interested parties—the three corners of the iron triangle—and negotiate a policy that suits everyone.
But I also realized that the “we” my lobbyist friend referred to did not include me, or most of the rank-and-file teachers. That’s part of the problem. Decisions about policy are made in closed rooms. Education reform is outside-in and top-down. This is probably one of the major causes of the demoralization of our profession.
The next month, the state superintendent gave an open presentation to legislators on the A-F evaluation system that I had tried and failed to replace. The letter grade, she said, was only a small part of the publicly accessible dashboard of useful data on each school. However, when I had previously polled a number of principals in my urban district about the system, they only ever told me their school’s letter grade, not the other information touted in the dashboard. They all felt stigmatized.
In the presentation to lawmakers, the state superintendent praised the use of absenteeism in the assessment, saying it measured the degree of trust families had in their schools. I wondered how the teachers in those low-performing schools in working-class neighborhoods would feel about that. The principals I talked to all objected to the use of chronic absenteeism as a benchmark.
For comparison, a high school with graduation rate of 80 percent received a D, while a statewide online virtual charter school with a 44 percent graduation rate received a C, in part because they could count completion of online tasks as attendance.
There was a nice lunch provided for the legislators who attended that presentation—courtesy of the Chamber of Commerce.
A version of this article appeared in the April 17, 2019 edition of Education Week as From Teaching U.S. Government to Living It