Overcoming An Unholy Alliance for Educational Stagnation and Failure

Fixing the public schools has bridged the partisan divide before and can again.

By SHARE

Margaret Spellings runs a public policy and strategic consulting firm. She served as the U.S. secretary of education and White House domestic policy advisor under President George W. Bush.

In February 2001, after a historic and divisive election battle, President George W. Bush and Sen. Ted Kennedy sat down to watch Thirteen Days, a film about Sen. Kennedy's brother, John, and the Cuban Missile Crisis. But it was much more than popcorn and a movie at the White House. These leaders set aside their differences and came together to focus on their common desire to improve the education system for our children.

I'm sure every one of our elected officials wants the problems with our public schools fixed, but few seem willing to give a little to reach common ground. The political climate today is deeply polarized. The upcoming midterm elections put this divide into sharp relief. At times it seems hard to imagine competing interests even sitting down together at the table, much less going to the movies together. But both sides did come together two weeks ago in Washington, D.C., for the premiere of the new documentary about U.S. schools, Waiting for Superman. When it comes to education, there is a history of bipartisanship in Washington.

In the days following the 2000 election, we changed the debate. We were able to zero in on the things that mattered most to kids—dispensing with the typical positions long pushed by entrenched interests on both sides of the aisle. We built consensus to pass the No Child Left Behind Act to help close the achievement gap with accountability, flexibility, and choice. President Bush and Republicans in Congress were determined to tie taxpayer investments to results. To achieve this, they gave the federal government a substantive yet discreet federal role in education while preserving local control. Members of both parties came together around strategies to help schools get all kids on grade level in the core subjects of reading and math.

Their work together resulted in overwhelming bipartisan support of the law. The bill passed in both the House and Senate with nearly 90 percent support. Unfortunately, today those numbers are almost unfathomable in a toxic political environment.

Now more than ever, we need leaders in Washington to listen to parents who want the best education for their children. With a stagnating economy, our lawmakers are focused on economic recovery, tax cuts, and job creation. But we cannot overlook the crumbling keystone of our nation's prosperity: our education system. Well-functioning schools that are delivering results for our kids are an essential component to our long-term economic security; yet, as the midterms approach most candidates aren't even discussing education.

We did it before and we can do it again—it just takes a little political courage and a lot of hard work.

[Listen to Education Secretary Arne Duncan's podcast about leadership in America's schools.]

Education is unlike any other policy. It's a deeply personal and emotional issue wrapped up in ideological battles and entrenched special interests. On the left we have the teachers unions and others fighting for the status quo, and on the right we have those who think the federal government shouldn't have a role in helping to improve education. It's an unholy alliance for educational stagnation and failure.

But there is a space where the federal government can serve a vital role in helping ensure that all children receive a quality education. In crafting and passing No Child Left Behind, we stayed focused on improving achievement for all students, on measuring progress, and making sure that failing schools faced consequences and provided options for the children in them. Most important, together we changed the conversation on education from funding to results.

We worked long and hard—beginning before President Bush was even elected—to create a unique coalition of supporters for this approach to education reform. As a result, we were able to bring together Republicans and Democrats, business interests and civil rights leaders. It's time we get back on track and rebuild that coalition on education again.