If you want to understand why gubernatorial leadership matters in overhauling American public education — and why school reformers must mobilize politically in order to gain traction for their efforts — consider the profiles in courage -(or lack thereof) of Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley and Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal in advancing their respective school choice and systemic reform plans.
Earlier this year, Bentley proposed a law that would allow for the existence of 50 public charter schools — and he knew he faced an arduous task. The Iron State remains one of seven states that don’t allow for any real form of school choice thanks to muscle-flexing of education traditionalists such as the National Education Association’s Iron State affiliate and school districts that are often the biggest and most politically-influential employers in the state. Back in 2010, Bentley’s predecessor, Bob Riley, with leverage courtesy of the Obama administration in the form of the Race to the Top competitive grant initiative, pushed hard and unsuccessfully for passage of his charter school plan against a then Democrat-controlled legislature fully under the thrall of the state’s educational status quo.
So Bentley knew he was going to have a tough time even with a Republican-controlled legislature in place. And he did, thanks to vitriol from NEA and school district officials, along with the religious- and immigrant-baiting rhetoric (especially the fear-mongering about possible presence of successful charter school operator Harmony, with its ties to Turkey’s Gulen Movement, coming into the state to run charters that education traditionalist groups such as NEA beneficiary Leonie Haimson’s Parents Across America have also begun to embrace). But instead of fighting hard, Bentley has seemed to have all but abandoned his own school reform effort. The legislation itself, which aimed to only allow 50 charters to be authorized, showed early on that Bentley lacked a profile in courage. Save for a trip to visit a charter in New Orleans and an occasional word or two, Bentley has been missing in action on advancing the charter school bill. No wonder why the proposed bill is on the legislative version of life support.
Meanwhile in Louisiana, Jindal offered an even more ambitious collection of reforms. This included expanding the state’s voucher plan from serving just 3,000 children in New Orleans to as many as 300,000 kids statewide stuck in dropout factories and failure mills; and a teacher quality reform package that would effectively end near-lifetime employment for laggard instructors. And the challenges Jindal faced were just as tough. Bayou State districts, which nearly succeeded in ending the original voucher program some years ago, were even more opposed to the expansion plan. Meanwhile NEA and AFT affiliates were even more vocal in lobbying against Jindal’s teacher quality reforms, even staging protests at the state capital in Baton Rouge to make their point.
Yet Jindal stood strong against the state’s educational ancien regime, going so far as to call out the executive director of the NEA affiliate for declaring that poor and minority families are too incompetent to make smart school choices. And Jindal’s aggressive stance, along with the strong lobbying of Parent Power and school reform groups, proved to be successful. By April, Jindal’s entire reform package passed into law with bipartisan support, angering education traditionalists across the nation hoping for a much-needed victory in a reform-oriented state.
Certainly the fact that Louisiana already has robust forms of school choice in place — including the entire city of New Orleans in which 80 percent of students attend charter schools — gives Jindal an advantage that Bentley doesn’t have. But Bentley really doesn’t have much of an excuse. After all, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is successfully withstanding pressure from teachers’ union bosses in his own efforts on overhauling teacher evaluations, while Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber successfully passed a law that puts him directly in charge of education policy in the dual role of state superintendent. More importantly, Bentley hasn’t even used the advantage of having majority Republican control to get anything done; this is opposed to the success California’s former Republican governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, had in getting a series of reforms — including the nation’s first Parent Trigger law and tying together student performance data to teacher performance data — passed by a Democrat-controlled legislature during his last two lame duck years in office.
What does matter is leadership, the willingness to stand up and strongly push for policies and ideals, especially amid hostile opposition from those who benefit fiscally, politically, and ideologically from the status quo remaining ante. The reality is that Bentley isn’t much of a leader on systemic reform, while Jindal most-certainly is. Which is why school reformers must work hard on the ground to elect governors who will stand up and be counted to help our kids get high-quality schools fit for their futures.
One of the realities in American public education today is that reformers must work hard at the state level in order to transform our failed systems. Given that state constitutions put governors and legislatures in charge of providing public education to children, and that districts are merely tools of state governments, this has always been true. But since the 1960s, the successful lobbying efforts by NEA and AFT affiliates to force districts into collective bargaining arrangements that have helped render them servile to union demands, and the passage of property tax relief efforts such as California’s Proposition 13, have greatly expanded the state role in shaping education. The passage of the No Child Left Behind Act, along with the Race to the Top initiative and President Barack Obama’s senseless No Child waiver gambit have merely signaled this reality.
With state governments effectively in charge of shaping education, the role of governors in education have grown even more prominent. Certainly not all governors have direct authority over state education departments; in fact, only 12 states allow for the governor to appoint chief state school officers, while 33 states grant governors the power to appoint the majority or all of the members of state boards of education. But power over education doesn’t simply rest on actually overseeing state school boards and agencies. Through their roles overseeing state budgets (all but seven have line-item veto power over fiscal spending plans), their critical role in promoting economic and social development, and the bully pulpits they control as state chief executives, governors can do plenty to shape education policy and advance systemic reform.
If anything, one of the most-important lessons from the states where school reform has gained the most-traction is that strong leaders serving as governors can advance reform even if the governance structures aren’t necessarily in their favor.
Outgoing Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, for example, has no line-item veto power over budgets (and in fact, must gain approval for fiscal adjustments from state legislators on a budget committee he technically co-chairs) , and save for appointing the state board of education and half the members on the Hoosier State’s education roundtable, doesn’t directly oversee education. Yet this hasn’t stopped Daniels from advancing reform. From teaming up with state Supt. Tony Bennett on a series of teacher quality reforms, to successfully convincing legislators to launch what is currently the nation’s largest school voucher program (until Louisiana’s new program gears up), Daniels has shaken off his initial reluctance to take on school reform to become the kind of leader needed in a state chief executive.
Daniels’ counterpart in Michigan, Rick Snyder, is also technically hindered by a governance structure that effectively gives him little control over education policymaking; the state superintendent is appointed not by Snyder, but by an elected school board upon whose board the governor sits as a mere ex-officio member. But in the last two years, Snyder successfully passed a law that expands his ability to appoint emergency financial managers over fiscally faltering school districts (along with other municipal governments), pushed successfully for a teacher quality reform plan, and successfully advocated for a law expanding charter schools (including virtual charter school operations) throughout the state. This hasn’t exactly come without some political damage — notably with an ally, state Rep. Paul Scott, losing his seat in a successful recall driven by the NEA affiliate there. But Snyder has managed to get plenty done in just two years in a governance structure that doesn’t favor gubernatorial intervention.
Then there is New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican who does have a stronger role in controlling education with his ability to appoint the Garden State’s education commissioner, but must work with a Democrat-controlled legislature — and an NEA affiliate that has long-sustained the party’s political coffers. But thanks in part to his hard-charging persona, the realization among voters that the Garden State must wrangle with $58 billion in retiree healthcare liabilities for teachers and other civil servants, and the support of a cadre of centrist Democrat school reformers such as state assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver and her patron, state Sen. George Norcross, Christie has been able to pass some modest changes in teacher compensation, is pushing for expansion of school choice, and has started a much-necessary conversation about overhauling teacher evaluations.
What all three have in common is a willingness to use their considerable reserves of political support to advance reform, even when education traditionalists and their fellow-travelers seem to have public opinion on their side. They used their bully pulpits effectively, framing the need for expanding choice and overhauling teacher quality in the context of the economic and fiscal challenges facing their respective states. Each are willing to suffer temporary political setbacks, even when conventional wisdom (and the maxim of politics being the art of the possible) dictates that they should take a proverbial few slices instead of grabbing the entire loaf. All three are not necessarily accommodationalist by nature; it helps that they aren’t necessarily trying to stay in office just to hold power, which usually leads most politicians to agree to compromises that do little to advance their vision. And from their offices, they successfully built coalitions for reform, rallying school reformers, business and civic organizations, and grassroots activists on the ground.
These important traits are typical with strong and effective leaders, regardless of the issues they undertake in the political and social arena. But as seen in the case of Daniels, Snyder, and Christie (and clear in the successful work of these are traits that are especially important in reforming American public education. After all, the penchant for false collaboration that achieves little for the futures of children is endemic within education traditionalist circles; there’s no incentive for those in those circles who may realize that traditional public education policies and practices no longer works for taxpayers, families, or children to support any changes that will anger friends and allies. More importantly, strong leadership isn’t about trying to deal with just the challenges of today, but advancing a vision that will position communities and states for the changes that are coming. And this especially true in an increasingly global economic age in which what you know is more important than what you do with your hands.
In short, the small ball-weak kneed approach to advancing systemic reform at the heart of Bentley’s efforts in Alabama, as well as those of counterparts such as Virginia’s Bob McDonnell, just won’t do. Nor will the head-in-the-sand obstinate opposition to reform represented by Schwarzenegger’s successor (and predecessor), Jerry Brown (and that of outgoing Washington State governor Christine Gregoire) will do either. This doesn’t mean that a governor will always win passage of a reform (something that Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy is learning all too well) and it doesn’t mean being popular. But it does mean that strong gubernatorial leadership matters, especially in building long-term support for sytsemic reform. Which means that school reformers must put more strong leaders in office by playing more-prominent roles in the political realm.
It starts by backing gubernatorial candidates regardless of party affiliation who will fight hard for systemic reform. This means a centrist Democrat in Washington State should be backing the Republican nominee presumptive, Rob McKenna, whose school reform bonafides are far more substantial than Jay Inslee, the likely Democrat standardbearer. Reformers must do a better job of building coalitions of support on the ground. This includes rallying the 51 million single parents, grandparents, and immigrant families, especially in urban communities, who are more than ready to support their efforts, as well as building support with churches and community groups (and playing upon their need for dollars the same way education traditionalists have done for decades). More bodies on the ground equals greater support for governors willing to risk political capital on reform (and more pressure on legislators who always keep count of which constituents may damage their political futures). Finally, reformers must go out there and play the political game as fiercely as NEA and AFT affiliates with vastly more experience in the game. This means running ad campaigns during legislative sessions, providing support to reform-minded politicians on Election Day, and making those who oppose choice and Parent Power pay for not voting the right way on legislative floors.
School reformers and their allies in governor’s mansions can learn plenty from Bentley and Jindal about what not to do (and what should be done) in advancing reform. And these lessons are critical for helping all of our kids get the education they need for successful adult lives.