Reflections on the K-12 education policy world (and goodbye)

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Like any life transition, preparing for a new job and saying farewell to colleagues and allies offers a bittersweet window of time to reflect. I’m sitting in that window now. Having finished almost a decade in the Ohio K–12 education policy space and my second stint at Fordham Ohio, I’m shifting into the early childhood policy domain.

Here are five essential ingredients for any advocate’s personal tool kit that I’ve been reflecting on and that I’ll be taking with me.

Principles that ground you—deeply

Working in public policy inevitably means you will interface with politics, whether you like it or not. When I began working in education policy at the state level, Obama had just been elected and Arne Duncan was his education secretary. There was a strong bipartisan coalition around charter schools—nationally at least—and I had been living and working in states where charter schools weren’t as partisan or as contentious as they are in the Buckeye State. It was news to me when I arrived back in Ohio and quickly learned that charter schools were almost exclusively supported by Republicans. Moreover, Democrats would be contesting the creation of Teach For America – Ohio, a program I—as a first-generation college graduate—had joined precisely because I believed in equity and justice.

I’ve always believed in principles above partisanship, and that’s helped me stay afloat in an otherwise often contentious policy space. More specifically, I think it’s vital to be able to identify your defining moments and remember why they led you where they did. Mine include:

  • The night I met a man with epilepsy while volunteering at a homeless shelter; he was the same age as my brother, who has the same neurological disorder. It occurred to me that without strong family support and stable public services, my brother would be living on the streets himself. I applied for a public service fellowship shortly after.
  • The moments leading up to the realization that I wanted to be a teacher, and nearly every moment spent in the classroom through the lens not only of a teacher but also as an observer of parents and grandparents who were ferociously dedicated to their little ones. This led me into education policy, specifically.
  • The afternoon a student’s mother asked my honest advice about sending her to a (better) charter school up the street. This initiated my conversion to school choice supporter.
  • The days my kids were born—for too many reasons to elucidate here. It’s safe to say that parenting informs much of what I believe now about policy priorities, choice, high expectations, and believing the best about others.

Your life’s defining moments should inform your principles, and combined with both experience and trial and error, they should inform your theory of change. When you’ve carefully and earnestly defined these for yourself, you can stand tall in what you do, even if you become discouraged on the policy front.

Commitment to research and data

This is one attribute I appreciate uniquely about my Fordham colleagues. As a think tank, Fordham is committed to research and data and does not stoop to the spin that has come to define social media and much of the news cycle.

Fordham will publish studies that actually contradict its own policy objective. That takes a tremendous amount of intellectual integrity. Every single colleague I’ve worked with looked at data carefully and monitors the latest and best research on K–12 education policy religiously.

I wish that more policymakers and advocates would take a deeper dive into research and data, and would resist arriving at conclusions prematurely. Perhaps that’s a tall order in this day and age, but there need to be more among us who care about technical truth and accuracy even if it dampens otherwise great-sounding rhetoric.

An understanding of context and history

In any policy endeavor, it’s important to get a run-down of the past. What was the impetus behind a current trend or piece of legislation? (Example: Common Core was developed by a bipartisan association of governors and state leaders, not by Obama, and not by evil leaders conspiring to brainwash our children.) Why has this policy proposal failed before? How do other states do it? What had to happen there in order to make a change?

These might sound like obvious points, but they weren’t immediately apparent to me upon entering the policy world. I assumed that smart policy ideas could and should be enacted by the mere fact that they were good ideas. Context matters so much that it’s nearly all I think about now, maybe to my detriment. Be careful not to focus on context exclusively, though, because that’s a one-way road to Irreversible Cynicism. For example, you may realize that an idea will never pass because there are not enough people in office currently to support it, so why even bother. But someone still needs to believe in Big Ideas, and if that someone is you—please continue carrying the torch. Recruit others if you must, or take a break, but by all means keep going.

Empathy

Empathy is conspicuously missing from most public debate, and this is part of the reason why the policy/political sphere gets a bad name for being so ugly and nasty at times.

Working alongside people at Fordham with whom I disagree in some areas—particularly those policy domains outside of education—has been challenging at times. But it’s strengthened my own reasoning and has sometimes revealed weaknesses in my own positions. It’s pushed me to try to practice dialogue that is respectful, civil, and productive. It’s required me to examine nuance and not oversimplify matters, and it’s made it easier to extend the benefit of the doubt to people with whom I may not share political affiliation but do share principles.

There’s too much demonizing and not enough humanizing, with social media exacerbating the problem at every turn. I don’t know the solution to this problem, but I encourage anyone working in the policy arena to seek out others who are not like you. Talk to them, learn from them, maybe befriend them. And by God, spend less time on Twitter.

Humor

Finally, stay humble and keep a sense of humor because, without it, the work can become grueling. And that’s no fun for anyone.

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Thanks to all of the great people I’ve had a chance to work with and learn from. Keep at it and know that I’ll be cheering you on from whatever window I’m looking out.

Jamie is the Associate Director of Policy at the Crane Center for Early Childhood Research and Policy at The Ohio State University. She’ll be working on public policy impacting young children in schools, at home, and in the community. You can reach her at [email protected] or on Twitter. 

 
 
Jamie Davies O'Leary
Jamie Davies O'Leary is former Senior Ohio Policy Analyst at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.