Given all the changes we’ve seen at the federal level, it’s not surprising that the most common question I’m hearing is, “How is federal change impacting what’s happening at the state level?”
Most aren’t expecting the optimistic answers I’m still giving.
“Advocates experienced in state-level influence are still working on familiar ground.”
By the end of January, the opening bell will have sounded in close to 40 state capitols across the country. (See here for session dates by state.) Long before that gavel swings, advocates at the state level have been gathering intel and planning their strategy, advised by much smart thinking. Some have recently put a stake in the ground through statements and press releases—see more on that here.
Like any year, advocates working to influence policymakers know that they need more than a strong offense. Others in their states are also bringing their A-game in an attempt to roll back progress or move their state in the opposite direction. Best laid plans can quickly be jettisoned when it’s clear that the year calls for sustained defense. In this work, holding ground often is progress.
“In fact, sometimes the most important work in shaping the legislative session are efforts that savvy advocates never brag about: their work to keep bad ideas from even being introduced into the proposed cycle for lawmaking.”
It’s true that we’re entering an era in which the U.S. Department of Education (ED) has offered far fewer guideposts for reform policy. However, big ideas have never just come from ED. National “big thinkers” are continuing to provide thoughtful guidance and analysis, such as here, here, and here. And the void created as federal reviews waned was also anticipated and filled: Bellwether Education and the Collaborative for Student Success teamed up with a slew of smart folks to review state ESSA plans independently.
After more than 10 years of weaving this Network, I’ve also seen another familiar—and encouraging—trend. While the national education policy commentariat have a short attention span, we see more sustained focus on important policy aims among advocates working in state capitols. At the state level, champions of important policies such as teacher quality know that impacting outcomes in schools requires staying power beyond the lawmaking cycle. Most are still at it through the slow but oh-so-important slog of implementation.
In fact, as the Network takes its annual pulse on the priorities of members, we are still seeing much alignment in the focus across state lines. Accountability, charters & choice, and educator policies all continue to be top priorities, and finance reform continues to grow as a strong priority across the country. (More on the priorities trending across the Network in a few weeks.)
Even the challenges advocates relay—while always unrelenting—are familiar. Newer members of the Network will find much collegiality in our upcoming executives’ gathering as we anticipate discussion of reform fatigue, testing backlashes, and how to balance thoughtful implementation with new policy innovation.
“Make no mistake, advocacy is tough work. It’s hard to pass laws and see them implemented well. And here’s a familiar observation from me: in a healthy democracy, it should be.”
As any advocate knows, many, many bad ideas are also introduced for consideration at the start of any session that are culled out by the same arduous process of lawmaking we face.
Collectively, advocates in this Network have worked better together for more than a decade – achieving much alignment as they trade wisdom and know-how. Experience reminds us that we’ve got this.
As they’ve done year after year for more than a decade, advocates in this Network are again “suiting up” to make it even harder for the status quo to pass policy that undermines quality schooling. As a Network, our aim is to make their lifting a whole lot easier.