Is Bipartisan Education Policy Still Possible?

By Evie Blad — May 22, 2024 5 min read
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A divisive political climate has made it more difficult to forge broad support for education policies across party lines.

But “cross-partisan” solutions are still possible—and urgently needed, said education policy advocates who spoke at a virtual event hosted by the Aspen Institute Education & Society Program Wednesday. They discussed a March report on forming coalitions to solve problems in the field, based on feedback and listening sessions from education leaders and advocates from a variety of political backgrounds.

“We may not have the political environment we want, but there are ways to operate in the one that we have,” said Karen Nussle, the former president of Conservative Leaders for Education, a right-leaning organization that advocates at the state level.

Education policy was once a field known for bipartisan press conferences and consensus ideas, she said, but forces like disruption from the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 racial reckoning, the parents’ rights movement, and heightened scrutiny on schools have made collaboration more difficult, especially at the national level.

But some state policies set an example of what it takes to win cross-party support in a new era of politics, said Andrew Rotherham, a member of Virginia state board of education and the co-founder of Bellwether Education Partners, a nonpartisan research and policy organization.

Among those state policies: laws related to “the science of reading,” career and technical education, and teacher pay, panelists said.

Politics have become a bit of a “goat rodeo” because ideological fractures within the two major political parties have made it more complicated for lawmakers to reach across the aisle, Rotherham said. Bipartisanship isn’t enough anymore; advocates need to focus on broader, cross-partisan coalition building instead, he said.

The panel also included Aspen Institute Policy Director Lorén Cox and Shaka Mitchell, a senior fellow at the American Federation for Children, an organization that advocates for private school choice policies like tax-credit scholarships.

Speakers discussed five keys to cross-party collaboration identified in the Aspen Institute report.

1. Policies should have broad appeal that is easy to communicate

The aims and benefits of policy initiatives should be easily communicated to a broad audience, including parents and voters, without jargon, acronyms, or complicated policy discussions, Nussle said.

“We in the education space have a great talent for overcomplicating what we are talking about when it comes to education policy,” she said.

For example, the simple message that schools need more qualified teachers has led to broad support for nontraditional teacher preparation programs, including the adoption of teacher apprenticeship models, a priority of President Joe Biden’s administration, by both red and blue states. Such programs tap new sources of funding from states and the federal government, and allow teacher candidates to learn on the job, earning pay and a teaching certificate in the process.

2. Solutions should be responsive to local contexts

People closest to the problem, such as teachers and parents, should be supportive of proposed solutions, speakers said. Such support can be a difference maker in passing eventual laws.

For example, career and technical education became the most common education priority in governors cited in 2024 state of the state addresses in part because of support from employers and educators seeking to respond to the needs of their communities.

3. Policymakers need political cover to advocate for new or unconventional solutions

Political cover—outside forces that build urgency for a policy proposal—can help motivate policymakers to tackle complicated problems or adopt unconventional solutions, the Aspen report said. Those forces could include federal mandates, state deadlines, or pressure from an affected group of constituents.

The Virginia Board of Education used a state deadline as cover to support its 2023 rewrite of history standards, a move that followed a contentious process and several rejected versions. After criticism that some previous drafts, written with the assistance of national groups, served to “whitewash” history, the board carefully went through its final draft together. While the new standards still attracted some criticism, they now include references to Indigenous Peoples Day, labor rights, and racism.

Republican governors in Texas and Iowa have taken “the hard way” to influencing policy by supporting primary opponents of lawmakers in their own party who did not support their education priorities, like private school choice, Mitchell said. In contrast, the “easy way” of influencing policy involves positive motivation, like stories of students who would be affected by a new law, he said.

“When you hear a family whose trajectory has been changed by a policy, I think it’s hard for the haters to come out hard against that,” Mitchell said.

4. Successful policies allow all parties to claim a win

In a former era of education politics, policymakers may have been able to “link arms and skip down the Yellow Brick Road” after passing a law with mutually agreed upon benefits, Nussle said. But in today’s environment, all involved parties need to have a “win” to communicate to their constituents, even if their messages are completely different.

For example, some states have included teacher-pay increases or funding formula revisions—Democratic party priorities—in broader education bills that include Republican priorities, like the expansion of tax-credit scholarships, Mitchell said.

5. Advocates should work with media to build support for policies

Media coverage can serve as an “accelerant” by helping the public understand the “why” behind a policy shift, the Aspen report said.

A prominent example: Sold a Story, a podcast by American Public Media that explains the science behind how children learn to read, has had more than 3.5 million downloads and won various national awards, the report said. It has also inspired related coverage from state and local media organizations, which has helped build public support for new laws.

Thirty-eight states and the District of Columbia have passed laws or implemented new policies related to evidence-based reading instruction since 2013, according to an Education Week analysis. While those laws, and their implementation, have faced some criticism, they’ve also won support from diverse political constituencies.

“There is a way to thrive in the conditions of the moment,” Cox said. “Just because it’s hard does not mean we can lose sight of our responsibility to do good things for kids.”

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