Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Opposite Sides Can Craft Solutions; It CAN Be Done!

We hear so much talk these days about how much better it would be if Democrats and Republicans in Washington would learn to work together -- if only they could reach across the aisle and craft solutions to the nation's problems.

We can almost hear that overused refrain: Can't we all get along?

It would be nice if there were no disagreements and everyone simply "got along," wouldn't it? But anyone who's reached a practical level of maturity understands that the real world simply doesn't work that way.

Which is not to say that solutions cannot be crafted that bring together opposite sides and give each side something that it's looking for. They can.

And they have been crafted in the individual states, particularly around the issue of school choice. That's what we learned at a recent confab in Denver sponsored by The Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity where two prominent state public officials (one a Democrat and the other a Republican) told us how they came together to construct Colorado's innovative school choice program which has won plaudits from students, parents, teachers and educators.

Rep. Angela Williams is a veteran Democrat member of the Colorado House of Representatives who is now seeking a seat in the State Senate. Dr. John Evans is a former Republican State Senator and educator who started out as a schoolteacher and has held numerous prominent education-related positions in Colorado.

Williams made one thing very clear. "When it comes to the education of our children, I know what my goals and my priorities are," she explained. "The bottom line for me is making sure that all students receive a quality education." And then Williams added this: “Our role as legislators is not to tell parents where to send their children to school but to give them high-quality choices that allow them to get the best for their children.”

But Williams admitted that getting to that point in Colorado has been neither easy nor uncomplicated.

Still, Williams said she steadfastly set out to bring about school choice to improve student enhancement, to introduce innovative methods of instruction and to provide parents with alternatives that they themselves help to construct and govern.

And while Evans and Williams don't agree on everything they do agree on this, as Evans explained it: “This not a Republican issue; it’s not a Democrat issue. It’s an issue for our kids. It’s an issue for our future.” And he added: "One-third of our public schools were failing and it’s just very hard to attract teachers and principals into low performing schools and low performing districts. We had to break that cycle, end that record.”

But people like Representative Williams and Dr. Evans got it done.

They did it, in part by providing both penalties for low performing schools, incentives to do better and then rewards and further incentives for high performing schools. 

Yes, it took time. Yes, it involved lots of competing interests. The Colorado Charter School legislation was crafted with about 30 or 40 interest groups around the table. It included six months of tough negotiation.

Williams said navigating policy and politics was the toughest part. As she explains it, here are the eight keys to success:

1) Start with an open and thorough stakeholder process

2) Involve all interested parties

3) Allow agreement and disagreement with education policy.

4) Honor the process: Negotiation and compromise.

5) Be patient but persistent in negotiations.

6) Accept that you will not get everything you want. You may get it next time.

7) There will be policy differences and conflicts both inside your stakeholder class and outside that class. Be prepared.

8) Amidst partisanship, try to focus on broad goals.

It was quite clear from their comments that both Williams and Evans did not achieve all their goals in the negotiation process and both have probably lost some of their traditional allies along the way. But think of what they've accomplished! Colorado now has a school choice program that is a model for the nation.

And they've also proved this: It can be done!

Or, as Ronald Reagan once put it: "There is no limit to the amount of good you can do if you don't care who gets the credit."

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