When Bipartisanship Goes Wrong?

We need more bipartisanship. Those four words echo across the floors of the United States legislature, the halls of political think tanks and the studios of cable news networks. It’s a sentence that, all at once, suggests that our government is both broken and easily salvageable. But as the House and the Senate both prepare to debate renewing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) this week, their rewrite of the ever-unpopular No Child Left Behind, the flip side of bipartisanship may actually be what ends up hurting kids most. Back in April, the Senate bill (Every Child Achieves Act) received unanimous support from the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. Immediately, the bill’s sponsors, Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., were hailed as heroes for creating an overwhelming consensus on an issue as polarizing as education reform, especially considering the House of Representatives’ inability to even introduce the measure for debate only 90 days earlier. But factions do exist and, for this bill, they take shape as a series of unlikely alliances that rarely see eye-to-eye on political policy. For example, civil rights groups have strange bedfellows in business groups, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, most of whom support a federal government role in creating a standard of success for individual schools. Within this debate, I consider this good bipartisanship—two groups working together on matters that keep the students top of mind.


That level of federal engagement in education policy won’t stand for the unholy alliance of the Tea Party and labor unions—what I call bad partisanship—the former having all but sworn to shut down the Department of Education, and the latter vowing to protect the adults in the educational system to the detriment of children. As you can see, not all bipartisanship is created equal. These groups refuse to work constructively to design a system that respects the leadership role of locals and states while also ensuring that taxpayers and parents have a viable way to judge whether schools and teachers are making progress toward educating all students to grade level. Each has strongly held beliefs. The unions believe that teachers cannot be held accountable for student outcomes based on test scores. The Tea Party believes in the preservation of local control at all costs. But their strongly held beliefs have led to a marriage of convenience, not of conviction. They cynically support a bill that maintains annual testing (albeit one with no teeth) on the one hand, yet encourage parents to have their children opt-out of those same assessments on the other. But is anyone explaining the downside of complete local control or the option to opt out? Is anyone telling parents that when it comes time to go to college, their children will be assessed? Who’s conveying the hard truth that students will face higher college costs if their skills aren’t up to snuff—that ill-prepared students face remedial classes that cost money but don’t count toward a college degree?


Not having the skill-set to succeed in college or the workforce means spending more time (and more money) to earn a high-quality credential. Because families today are short on both, this heightens the likelihood that students will drop-out of college mid-program, never receiving a postsecondary credential at all but still racking up lots of student loan debt. Simply put, the approach of these bad alliances would jeopardize the single greatest chance that millions of Americans will ever have to succeed. If the unions and tea partyers stand firm in their opposition on these most important, albeit controversial items, one of two things will happen. We could end up with a system that lacks accountability for how federal dollars are used to serve our kids, especially those underserved or special needs children who need our help the most. Or, alternatively, a final vote could net no reform at all, resulting in continued uncertainty operating under a bill that is nearly 10 years past its expiration date and no longer reflects the needs of today’s students, schools or educators. When the final votes are tallied, it’s those polarizing topics that will ultimately decide how willing lawmakers are to reach across the aisle. There’s an opportunity for bipartisanship to win out here, but there’s also a chance that “bipartisanship” could go very, very wrong.

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