Weathering Transitions is Familiar Work for State-based Advocates
March 3, 2017

Every year, elections are held that create new opportunities and fresh challenges in the effort to improve schools. School boards can change dramatically in any given election year. For most states, legislatures may turn every other year, and governor’s offices might change in four. Advocates at the state and local level anticipate these sea changes.

At the federal level, we’ve grown accustomed to more stability. Consider this: our last three Presidents each settled in for eight years. In those years, the White House shifted from blue to red to blue again, adding partisan flavors to policy in the process.

However, what’s really more significant is that policy driving school improvement has been sustained through significant bipartisan support throughout those twenty-four years.

The big ideas guiding education policy have included the importance of high standards, accountability for meeting them, closing gaps to increase equity (significantly, at the insistence of a Republican President), and stronger backing for choices, including charter schools (championed by a Democrat).

Our new President has promised big changes across most areas of government. While we’re still gathering insight about how much will change under our new Secretary of Education, we do know this much: this new administration means what it has said about deferring to states as the main drivers for education policy. And it makes the role that state advocates often play in their state capitols even more important.

This display shows the partisan shifts impacting states where PIE Network members are at work, reminding us that in statehouses, change happens at a steady clip. It’s therefore worth recapping some of the wisdom often traded among Network leaders about weathering transitions in partisan control.

Wisdom Worth Repeating

First, because advocates know that partisan shifts in leadership are inevitable, most have built their organizations for the cross-partisan influence that’s needed to maintain access through leadership transitions. Staff teams, boards of advisors and directors, and other formal relationships that shape an organization’s reputation might see some refreshing if there’s significant political turn over in their state capitol, though most anticipate the need to remain nimble across the political spectrum.

Second, smart advocates know that changes in leadership offer interesting opportunities for building—and rebuilding—relationships among important influencers in their state capitols. Within any administration, factions form among colleagues who lean toward similar approaches and ideas. Those leanings become habits that, toward the end of political terms, can make behavior all too predictable. Change the leader and you disrupt those patterns: people have room to rethink and reposition. Smart advocates, therefore, know that when a new policy making season brings new faces, it’s essential to shed preconceived ideas about how even long-time colleagues might align. During these windows, open-minded advocates often discover new opportunities and alliances.

Third, as hard as it is to pass a law (whether in a state house or in Congress), that effort almost always pales in comparison to the effort needed to see that law implemented well. Wise policymakers and advocates alike have learned to resist the temptations for quick action along strict party lines on issues they know can be changed or watered down over time. That’s why policy makers who want to do big things look for bi-partisan backing, and advocates organize broad coalitions of support, even when those efforts aren’t needed to ensure passage because they know that commitment ensures sustainability.

Finally, these insights remind us of something that’s a bit ironic. It’s often during these moments of transition that advocates—who usually push for change—find themselves championing the need for stability. In a statehouse or board room that’s seen a lot of turnover, advocates can be the ones who bring institutional memory into policy deliberations. That might mean reminding others about the backlash or unintended consequences provoked the last time similar issues were raised. It can also mean that in addition to looking for opportunities to advance new ideas, many advocates will add to their to-do lists the necessary work of restating their cases from past campaigns to hold that important work in place.




    Suzanne Tacheny Kubach

    Suzanne is PIE Network's Executive Director

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