Partisanship and Bipartisanship

Few can deny that Washington and many a state capital are gridlocked today by political partisanship, posturing, and peevishness. Tons of problems aren’t getting solved or attended to because elected officials find themselves unable to reach common ground and have forgotten the art of compromise.

The highest-visibility version of this takes the form of Republicans and Democrats glaring at each other. Sometimes, however, the main friction is within a party, mostly when strong-willed ideologues on either party’s fringe make trouble for its centrists. All this is exacerbated by the twenty-four-hour news cycle, by everybody’s ability to tweet or blog or otherwise scream in unfiltered fashion what’s on their mind, and by recent redistrictings of legislative and Congressional seats, as well as the proclivity of Americans nowadays to move into politically homogeneous communities. When either party locks up a district or Senate seat, all the political action moves into the primaries, hence into duels within parties, erasing all incentive to negotiate across party lines in order to get anything accomplished. “Avoiding a primary challenge” generally translates into “never compromise with the other team.”

Deal making used to be the norm in legislative bodies. Today, it’s the exception. That’s why so much attention gets paid to “gangs” of six or eight or whatever who get together to see if they can work out something that might pass muster with a majority of the entire body.

Education hasn’t seen a lot of bipartisanship of late, at least not in Washington. Lawmakers may have finally reaches a compromise on college-student-loan rates, but paralysis has gripped K–12 (and pre-K) issues since the No Child Left Behind act was passed a dozen years back.

To his credit, has tried to navigate these turbid waters and has acquired a reputation for being willing to work with almost anyone on either side of the aisle, both on Capitol Hill and in statehouses. He’s not just a policy broker, of course; he has strong policy preferences of his own—some of which were viewed not long ago as GOP or conservative ideas. And he’s been willing, perhaps even eager, to act unilaterally, whether with discretionary dollars or waiver authority or both, to get things done AND to point policy in his preferred direction. (When it comes to preschool, he hasn’t shown any proclivity to compromise with Republicans.)

History may conclude that Duncan’s use of ESEA waivers so eased the NCLB pain felt by states and districts that it also eased the pressure on Congress to fix the statute itself, thus—unintentionally—worsening the gridlock problem.

In any case, it’s not getting solved—not yet, not in the NCLB-ESEA department. With the House having just passed (on a nearly straight party-line vote) John Kline’s “Student Success Act,” the next move is up to the Senate, which could take up and in theory could pass Tom Harkin’s “Strengthening America’s Schools.” A marked-up version of that bill cleared the Senate HELP Committee last month, again on a party-line vote, although it’s unlikely to attract the sixty votes needed to avoid a fatal filibuster on the Senate floor. And if, by some miracle, it did clear the full Senate, the ensuing conference-committee process might drag on forever, not to mention how painful it would then be to get a compromise version approved by either chamber. (We are likely to witness a similar scenario on immigration.)

All of this is plenty challenging within the Congress, but it’s aggravated to a fare-thee-well by the unbending stance of any number of influential outside interest groups, mostly but not entirely from the teacher-union, education-establishment, and civil-rights camps. They pretty much stymied action on what was actually a bipartisan ESEA bill that emerged from the Senate committee two years ago but never reached the floor. They adore the latest Harkin version (which has no Republican support), and pretty much the same array of groups and organizations denounced the Kline bill last week (i.e., the bill with no Democratic support).

No matter that some of these groups are two-faced. The teacher unions, for example, oppose ESEA reauthorizations that do not contain mandatory student achievement goals, standards, targets, tests, and enforcement mechanisms; then they turn around and gripe about all efforts to hold teachers to account for getting their pupils to pass those tests and reach those targets. But the larger political point is that (again, much like immigration reform) the dogmatism of influential outside groups worsens the gridlock problem.

The most surprising members of the uncompromising “my way or the highway” camp are prominent national business groups, notably the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable, both of which joined the left last week in savaging the Kline bill and demanding more federal regulation and control of education. One can half-understand this in the Chamber of Commerce case, because that outfit’s main education-policy strategist has been none other than true-believer NCLB architect Margaret Spellings (now on her way back to Texas to head the George W. Bush Foundation). It’s almost beyond imagining, however, why the BRT wants Uncle Sam to stay in charge of education, considering that that worthy organization is headed by former Michigan governor John Engler, who knows the ed-reform scene well and has shown what states, left to their own devices, are capable of. I suppose this is yet another sad example of corporate America succumbing to big-government-itis.

Whatever the explanation, despite a wee bit of kumbaya in Congress on other issues in recent weeks, despite Duncan’s earnest efforts, and despite a few members (Lamar Alexander prominent among them) who would actually like to get something done, gridlock and stasis don’t seem to be leaving the K–12 space in Washington anytime soon.

-Chester E. Finn, Jr.

This first appeared on the Fordham Institute”s Flypaper blog.

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