This is the story of the way forward.
There’s a saying I read in an education manual that has stuck with me: The other side of the coin has another side.
Last November, I was elected to the Oklahoma state legislature as one of those angry teachers demanding better school funding. I was one of 24 Democrats working alongside 77 Republicans in my deep-red state’s House of Representatives. Some things didn’t go so well for me in this first session, as you may have read in the essays I’ve been writing for Education Week. I authored several bills. They all died. I debated against some pretty awful examples of cut-and-paste legislation from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a national organization that promotes conservative legislation at the state level. One such bill, for example, required doctors to notify patients of a scientifically unproven method of reversing the effects of “day after” drugs used in abortions. They all passed. We ended the session with an improved budget for next year, but the legislative leadership chose to deposit $200 million dollars of unallocated revenue into a state savings account—revenue that could have been used to fully fund smaller classroom sizes.
It felt lonely to be in such a small minority, kept out of the discussions that matter. In the minority role, your primary purpose is to call into question the wisdom of the majority. That’s an important function. History provides an example of American government under single-party rule: the Confederacy. Lacking a competitive party structure, it failed to build consensus and govern effectively. Individual party barons and interests obstructed the Confederate government at every turn, resisting policies to control inflation, enforce conscription, or finance the government.
A similar dysfunction manifests itself today in the kind of interest-group politics we see in deep-red or deep-blue states. It’s all too easy for powerful interests to push the policies they want with the ruling party leadership, because they know the opposition is too weak to stop them.
It’s not that the other side of the coin is evil. Our system is just out of balance. I learned that “the other guys” are for the most part good, honorable people. They just have a different point of view. But there are some who are in government chasing power and money, and it’s harder to constrain those individuals when a single-party power structure prevails. In states with de facto one-party rule, there’s no check on individual ambition, other than from within the ruling party itself. However, the party wants to remain united for the sake of holding on to power, leaving the minority party in the role of Cassandra—the Trojan priestess whose warnings about trouble ahead went unheeded.
In this environment, education becomes a battleground issue. Lobbyists for private interest groups can promote school privatization through voucher bills, call for tax cuts at the expense of public services, and suppress collective bargaining for teachers. All they have to do is leverage one party, whose lopsided majority allows leaders to favor narrow interests without worrying that their power might slip. They profit from the polarization of contemporary politics.
As teachers, we need to realize that teaching is a political act.
So, how do we as educators change the narrative? As teachers, we need to realize that teaching is a political act. It affects everyone, and therefore we need to advocate for good policies that invest public resources wisely in the common good. We can no longer shut up and teach. We have to speak out. We should do so politely, resolutely, and with the facts on our side. And we need to build bridges to communities that feel alienated by modern school bureaucracy. For example, we need effective strategies that combat bullying with restorative justice and by modeling civil society. And we need to provide effective resources for addressing this generation’s challenges in mental health.
Public schools need to reassert their role as a public square of American discourse—a place where citizens learn from each other and appreciate different points of view. By teaching good, old-fashioned critical thinking, we can prepare another generation to do better in the digital age. One of the reasons we have so many states run by one party is that we have learned to vilify the other side rather than listen to it.
This fall, for the first time in 20 years, I won’t be teaching in a public school. As a legislator, I cannot be on another state payroll, so I’ll look for jobs in private schools. It’s ironic that I had to give up the job I loved to try to save the public school system I love.
But I don’t regret the choice. I believe public service is honorable, and I look forward to coming to the next session of the legislature with more experience and a better sense of how to get things done. I believe that the fight for better policies, for public education, and a host of other issues, is a good fight.
And I believe it’s not too late to fix American politics. Most people in both parties recognize the need for a healthy public school system. And I need to assure colleagues on the other side of the aisle that I am not the enemy. I’m part of the solution—the other side of the coin.
A version of this article appeared in the July 17, 2019 edition of Education Week as We Can’t Just Shut Up and Teach