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Can You Have Your Change and Progress Too?

Voters who care about education reform have a job to do after they leave the ballot box tomorrow.

Voters who care about education reform have a job to do after they leave the ballot box tomorrow: Make it clear to new leaders that momentum and progress must continue under new leadership.

Elections can be hard on education, but they don’t have to be. Much is made of the instability wrought by electoral changes in leadership. It conditions an unproductive hunker-down-and-wait-it-out response that virtually guarantees no real reform will last. However, a closer look challenges this response and suggests how the 2010 elections can mark the year our nation has not only its change, but its progress, too.


Even without the tempest of Tea Party fervor, the nation will elect a minimum of 24 new governors—many in large states like California, Florida, New York, and Pennsylvania. Gubernatorial leadership is key to advancing dramatic education improvements. Governors in more than a dozen states appoint their chief school officers directly or through state boards; eight of 14 elected K-12 education chiefs are on the ballot this year. In six states, the governor appoints higher education chief executives. Change is certain. Progress will be a concerted choice.

In Washington, D.C., the mayoral transition drama may offer an instructive preview of whether a change in leadership spurs or stalls progress. Newly elected mayor Vincent Gray intentionally sent a message that he plans to build on the progress of outgoing Chancellor Michelle Rhee. Gray picked an interim school chancellor completely in tune with Rhee on the fundamentals of education reform—namely the centrality of teacher quality in determining student success. The move was a relief to many who still embrace Rhee’s fearless focus on results and ability to attract top talent to work in a district marked by dysfunction. Whether continuity and progress will persist is an open to debate.

Washington, D.C., could look to Arizona for lessons in reform that transcend party and personality. Whenanet Napolitano became Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, a comprehensive education “innovation” agenda, which gained steam into her second term, was placed in jeopardy. Making matters worse, key reform allies in the state legislature’s education committee chairs left office. While certainly a shake up, a group of nonprofit organizations outside the governance and political structures ensured that reforms continued by sharing data and knowledge with new leadership. This information was also broadly shared with parents and the public, who helped keep the continuous improvement heat on. The state is now a leader in science and math education, and is providing high-quality college opportunities at lower costs, coordinating between the state’s community colleges and four-year colleges and offering higher education in more convenient times and places, including online.

Expect More Arizona, an independent nonpartisan statewide partnership of dozens of organizations, is urging candidates and voters to make education a priority in this year’s elections, keeping the focus on the issues and not the politicians. Any changes delivered by the 2010 elections will no doubt be fully in line with an agenda that transcends party lines.

Perhaps the best example of having not only electoral change but also progress is in Maryland. The state kept the same schools chief (Nancy Grasmick) through the past three governors who were not only from different parties, but two (Bob Ehrlich and Martin O’Malley) are currently engaged in an intense rematch. No matter who wins, education progress in Maryland can continue because responsibility for success does not depend on one person or party. As a result, the state offers outstanding science and math education from grade school through college, giving students knowledge and experiences to help them solve, invent, and advance in the workforce.

It surprised no one that Maryland is one of nine Race to the Top federal grant winners—a competition that required winners to demonstrate the kind of broad-based support that ensures reforms stand the test of time and politics. The state’s students will be the real winners of RTTT’s $250 million effort to align the state’s curriculum with international benchmarks and expand a program to turn around underperforming schools.

If high school and college completion improvements stall, it will be our own fault. Voters who care about education have a job to do after they leave the ballot box: make it clear to new leaders that momentum and progress must continue under new leadership. Assuming electoral change is bad for education is an all-too-convenient, but not altogether accurate excuse. Maryland and Arizona prove that one party or personality need not carry reform. When responsibility is shared broadly, progress continues.

Terrell Halaska previously served as the White House special assistant for domestic policy and as assistant secretary for legislative affairs at the Education Department. Catherine Freeman was the chief of staff to the state superintendent of education for the District of Columbia and was deputy assistant secretary for policy in the Education Department's K-12 office. Both are founding partners of HCM Strategists, a Washington, D.C. public policy and advocacy consulting firm.

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