If They Can Make Progress in Washington, Can't We Do the Same Here in Illinois

From my vantage point in Chicago, these past few weeks were surreal on the education landscape. In Washington we saw an all-too-rare but wonderful example of compromise on a landmark education law. In Illinois we are embroiled in an ongoing and unimaginably bitter and partisan battle over education funding. And in Chicago the legacy of an “us vs. them” culture has exacted a brutal toll on all of our residents, particularly our most vulnerable. The fact is, whatever the law, without stakeholder participation, policy can never escape politics. In five years of working with classroom-based educators in nearly every state, The VIVA Project has proven a simple truth: If you involve educators as partners in policy making, they will bring their passion, their wisdom and their best professional judgment to the task. We all need to spend more time on problem solving and a little less time on polemics and polarizing. Without active citizenship, our elected officials lose connections to us. We let politics and power overtake common good. What better place to start than by letting teachers lead by example, by asking them to make the case for how policy improves their students’ achievement and supports their practice.

Putting Aside the Politics

Eight years after the expiration of No Child Left Behind, the main federal law dealing with K-12 schools, its reauthorization has been signed into law by President Obama and renamed Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). It represents a major reallocation of power. While the new law has a number of holes, it is a good example of responsible governance simply by virtue of its existence. Elected officials took their jobs seriously, put aside the politics of obstruction and acted responsibly. The revisions, while falling short on educator effectiveness, preserves two critical tenets of the original purpose of the law: that federal policy ensure equal access to the opportunity to learn for all students, regardless of race, income, or other status; and that all states provide a comparable level of education for all American students. It remains to be seen how states will implement the law, but Congress did its job and the president’s vision is being preserved.

In Search of a Common Vision

In contrast, what’s happening in Illinois is yet another example of what happens when citizens are disconnected from government and politics gets in the way of governance. Illinois has a long history of kicking the can down the road on tough decisions and a long history of citizen protest. What’s missing is any kind of common vision between citizens and public officials about how government should work and what greater good it serves. We need our political leaders to approve a budget now and work through policy differences. In my beloved Chicago—where my grandmother was born and where I am raising the fifth generation of my family to live in the City that Works—too often we let backroom deals triumph over public participation. Now, more than ever, we need to step up and work with our political leaders, not expect them to find the answers without real insights and input from citizens. As a start, we can stop using our schools as a political football and work together to figure out how to find the funding to give a full year of education to each student. Similarly, it’s going to be up to states and school districts to fulfill the promise of opportunity for every student underlying ESSA. Teachers must play a huge role in implementing ESSA. Leaders in each state have an obligation to ask educators, speak with educators and keep educators involved every step of the way in shaping their state’s promise to our children under ESSA. Our students deserve a fair chance at a future. Without a reasonable education, they are not going to get it.  
Elizabeth Evans
Elizabeth Evans is founder and CEO of The VIVA Project. A former lawyer, Elizabeth has over 25 years of experience in management, strategy, campaign design, coalition building, data-driven policy design, strategic communications, law and policy. Previously, Elizabeth was executive director of the Illinois charter school association for five years, where she ...

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