Kevin: I don't know about you, but I've always been fascinated with the game of chess. What will your opening move be? How will you react to the next move? What is your end game? Chess is complex and challenging, just like the politics of education.
It makes me wonder, how have the politics of education change with the pandemic? Are we any smarter? Have we figured out how we can work together? I want to know more. I want to know where the pieces lie. I need to know whether education leaders and politicians are thinking two steps ahead. And if not, why? This is what I want to know.
Today I'm pleased to be joined by Andy Rotherham, co-founder of Bellwether Education Partners, and former Louisiana State Senator Ann Duplessis, to discuss their experiences and perspectives on the relationship between public and private sectors and the role government plays to enact positive change and direction for U.S. schools.
I am so excited to be joined by my good friend, banker, public servant, Ann Duplessis. Ann, thank you for joining us.
Ann: Thank you. It's my pleasure.
Kevin: You were known, in Louisiana, when you were a state senator, as the education legislator. And, Ann, you know, I knew you were on your game, but I did research, 57 bills were passed to help the kids at the state and you authored them. As we travel around the country, not many legislators focus on education. Why was this so important for you to be engaged in the education discussion?
Ann: I didn't go to the legislature willingly. There were just things that just wasn't happening in my community. When I got to the legislature, I did not consider the issues that was occurring with regards to education or the lack thereof in New Orleans at the time. But my constituents saw something different. You know, I fought it. My constituents, as soon as I was elected, came to me and said, "You've got to help us with our schools. You've got to help us at least get books in the schools." I fought it and said, "Listen, I'm at the state level. You have an elected school board. So your elected school board is who you should be talking to."
But I guess God had other plans because it began to dawn on me, as I allowed myself to listen and hear their please, it began to dawn on me that it didn't matter if I was elected to the school board or to the legislature or to the Senate, I was placed in a position of authority and a little power or influence, and I had better use it to do the right thing.
Kevin: Just to remind people who may not know that when we talk about 15 years ago, there are several school board members that were indicted and went to jail and there were resources...not to point fingers, but it was a challenged environment. So there was a lot of parental frustration. And then, you get in office and Katrina happens.
Ann: Yeah. Less than a year.
Kevin: You know, you, heeding the call, start to introduce these laws. I want to unpack that because you came to it, not with any political bent about education, but wanting to do the right thing. After Katrina, you authored the legislation that led to, in effect, the takeover of New Orleans schools and many of the schools ended up being charter schools that were high-performing, but it's very controversial. I want to talk to you about the politics as it impacted your day-to-day, especially when you came into it with fresh eyes.
Ann: You know, my dad was a minister and he was a cab driver in New Orleans. And he happened to pick up two guys, two young guys who should have been in school, and they eventually robbed him and shot him seven times for $5 in his pocket. They were high school-age kids. And it dawned on me that there is a reason why these kids chose to not be in school and chose to be on the streets. I don't think any of the kids or the families of these kids want to choose the streets. I think that it's the lack of what we're providing them in our educational space.
Often, when I see some of those same kids who are athletically-inclined, that they choose to go to school because there is something there that draws them and that helps them feel like there is a future for them, and that's athletics. It never ceases to amaze me why we can't get that same energy in the classroom for these inner-city kids. What is it about athletics and the idea of a future that a coach can bring to these lives but we can't? We have to put politics aside. We have to, because kids were dying, people were dying. If we didn't, what would be the end result? The end result would be we would continue to have lives being lost.
Kevin: And in spite of your commitment, and the commitment of others, you still have folks who fight change because of the body politic. And I recall speaking to legislators in another Southern state, and the legislator said that, "Even if it would help my constituents' kids, I won't support it because I cannot support anything that someone from another party is pushing." And how do we break through that?
Ann: That is a tremendous question, right? And, you know, it was difficult for me during my time in the legislature to help my colleagues and friends who were Democrats. But to understand that this is not about the letter behind someone's name, right? It's about the kids and whatever it is that we can do to impact a difference in their lives. I do understand that it is difficult for individuals to think conspiracy, right? Why do they care so much when the very next bill that comes across their desk, that also positively impacts low-income kids or minority families or whatever, or brown families, they're vehemently against it? So what is it about this educational choice topic that they're so supportive of? And then in the next breath, they're not. That's something we've got to figure out how to reckon with.
Kevin: One thing that I am aware of, my experience has shown me this, I'm sure you as well, that when it comes down to what will help a child learn, we should strip away the political blinders.
Ann: Part of the problem is that politics and being in that position of influence, power, whatever you want to call it, has become, in many cases, their god. That's more important. That is more important. I have to protect where I am, and less important is the impact of their power. We have to be able to help begin to elect more forward-thinking people. I think that, as we start to see our legislatures across the country change with more younger legislators, who are a lot more accepting and don't carry some of the same legacies that some of our other older legislators carry, we will begin to see more acceptance of this idea of having options in education, doing things that will be much more innovative in the structures and the systems of how we teach our kids.
Kevin: You had real success building alliances across the aisle with Republicans and Democrats. What were some of the tools in your toolkit, from a political point of view, that you used to build consensus around some of these difficult educational pieces of legislation that was going to push change?
Ann: They knew that I'll walk away, and it wasn't about politics. And so they were more apt to listening, instead of just rejecting it, thinking that's her thing. I was able to truly help, for each one of the pieces of legislation, help my colleagues on both sides to understand the reasons why, and how it was truly going to impact an individual. We're able to bring folk, and families and children, to the Capitol and help them tell their story. But we had to be able to help each one relate to the true impact that this piece of legislation would have. And then I just asked them to put that other stuff aside and let's do something that is really going to have an impact for our kids. And in many cases, they heard me and they listen.
And in some cases, if they couldn't hold their nose and vote, they walked away. They didn't... You know, politicians come with a will to stay in that office. I went with a will just to do what I had to do and leave. And my decisions were not based on how is this going to help me get reelected.
Kevin: You truly knew how to build relationships. You were popular as a legislator, even among people who didn't agree with you politically. You did your homework. And I'll never forget sitting in Governor Jindal's office, and his staff had pulled out the bill, and they just wanted you to say, "Okay, I'm okay with it." And you said, "Oh no, no. I read it." You said, "Let me take off my shoes." And you took off your shoes and went line by line.
Ann: There's a reason for me taking off my shoes because it's very difficult to think strategically when your feet hurt. Ever since I was a legislator, I had to wear those pumps, you know. I couldn't do the Kamala [Harris] thing and wear tennis [shoes], right? Not at that time.
Kevin: So I said, boy, anytime I got something going on with Ann, she take off her shoes, we all in trouble, because she is drilling down.
Ann: But to that point, Kevin, that became known and people knew that I wasn't playing. It wasn't a bill that you brought me or that Jindal brought me or that somebody just bought and said, "Here, can you carry this?" I wasn't there to carry a piece of legislation. I was there to make a difference and to use that legislation as the tool to making a difference. And if that was going to happen, then I had to understand every single word. I had to make sure that every comma was in the right place.
Kevin: Yeah. And you know what? I witnessed it. I mean, I saw the governor say, "Well, we'll check in tomorrow. You know, y'all working through with the Senator here." He didn't have time to go through...
Ann: There were long nights. There were long nights.
Kevin: So impressive.
Ann: Are you really gonna read this entire bill? Yeah.
Kevin: The whole thing. So talk about the federal government because people talk about education, there's sometimes a focus on who may be the education secretary, and then there's federal support, federal policy. But the federal government, a lot of people don't know this, they only provide 8%, 9%, 10% of the dollars that go to local schools. Over 90%, in most cases of state education, funding comes from the state, not the federal government. So the federal government is the bully pulpit. What role do you see the federal government taking on that could help de-politicize education?
Ann: The federal government is going to have to help to create policies that allow for, as we've talked about, the money that's available, to actually follow that family and that child. To use the financial resources that we have in the same manner, I think, is not going to work. Because of COVID, we are different now. No two ways about it, the world is different. It will not go back 100%, just like in higher ed.
If you look at what's happening in higher education now, the higher ed community institutions are totally rethinking their resources. They've embraced online learning, but they're embracing it like never before now, which means a shift in how they are using their capital, how they're using their resources. I think the federal government is going to have to take note and play a role in helping to lead policies from a national level that allows for these different ways of deploying the revenues.
Kevin: So, Ann, this is what I really want to know. Can the COVID reset lead to less politics in education?
Ann: COVID, as we know, has shed such a light on the inequities in education, especially with low-income communities, brown and black children, across the country. So I know that the politics will still be there, but I'm hopeful that the politics will be more focused on ensuring that we do close the gap.
Kevin: Spoken like a true governor. Ann Duplessis for governor.
Kevin: Ann, thank you so much for joining us on "What I Want To Know."
Ann: Thank you. This has been a delightful
Kevin: Andy Rotherham has deep-rooted experience in education policy and education politics. Andy is the co-founder of Bellwether Education Partners, a national non-profit supporting innovation in education. Previously, Andy served at the White House as a special assistant on domestic policy to former President Bill Clinton. In that role, not surprisingly, his focus was on education policy and politics.
Andy: Kevin, thanks for having me. It's really great to see you.
Kevin: So when we talk about the politics of education and education policy, the politics of education get in the way. I like to use the example that there's no Democrat or Republican way to teach a kid how to read, write, count, and yet, each of the major parties has their own education caucus. They even talk about their own approach to reading and writing. How do we fix this seemingly unfixable political problem?
Andy: Like you're looking right now around the country and you're seeing a variety of groups getting serious about, "We want our kids to be taught based on the best science or reading. And we want seriousness here." Like, you know, so in Oakland, a place that's, you know, pretty known for its radical politics, the NAACP there is really put a push out on, "Teach our kids to read, teach them the right way. We're not concerned with your theories and your aesthetics of reading. We want our kids to know how to read." Essentially, it's a little like Churchill said about democracy, "And after we exhaust all the wrong ways to do something, we tend to, sort of, stumble to the right one." You know, that's what keeps me at this is it can be hard. The politics are driven by what adults want, adult special interests, but we, sort of, muddle through and you do eventually see progress.
And I do think when we're at our best, it's when we take elements of what both sides are talking about. I don't know how anyone can look at this debate and think any faction has a monopoly on the good ideas, but you look at something like charter schools, that took a Republican emphasis on market-based solutions, a Democratic emphasis on what are the key values of public education that's important to preserve, in terms of open access, public accountability, things being tethered to some, sort of, wellspring of democratic input. And that's where the charter idea came from. Maybe I'm a glutton for punishment, but that's what keeps me, like, fundamentally optimistic that we can find our way to good solutions
Kevin: In the end, the answer lies with taking the best from both of the major political parties and it's not an either/or proposition. So let's talk a little bit about the difference between the federal political landscape and the state political landscape. It is my sense that in state politics is often easier to find that common ground and take the best from both.
Andy: Around the country, like, neither party is, sort of, functioning really well at various levels of government, if you define functioning well as being responsive to the needs of average Americans and what they need to be able to live their lives as fully as possible. But I do think in education, just because, first of all, it's primarily a state function, there is more action there. There's more authority, that can be good or bad, but that is a place where we see, sort of, behind the scenes, more seriousness.
So a good example would be the worst of the Common Core political circus nationally. Behind the scenes, you had, like, responsible Republican governors who are trying to, like, "How do we keep this push on standards, improve quality, and so forth?" They didn't want to see the baby get thrown out with the bath water. They didn't want the, sort of, culture war, Common Core theatrics to take over. I think that's a good example of, you know, people are actually vested with those kinds of responsibilities.
And then, of course, local leaders, and they've had a lot of mayors who have done really powerful work in different places, whether that's someone like a Bart Peterson in Indianapolis with what he was trying to do with charter, to somebody like Kevin Johnson in Sacramento, who just said, you know, "We can't continue with the school system like this. We have to act." And you're seeing increasingly mayors, you know, Lori Lightfoot in Chicago is a good example of a mayor who's been very vocal on schooling, that things have to change. And so I think that's another level of government to pay attention to.
Kevin: And so how do we bring it all together? What should the federal government be doing in terms of its approach to the states and education? And keep in mind that we've got another big battle looming in terms of accountability and this issue of testing. So what are your thoughts on the federal role vis-a-vis the politics?
Andy: Yeah. I think the politics or the policy is the same thing. The federal government's really good at spending money. I don't mean that in the way like that's the only thing that anyone can agree on in Washington anymore. I just mean the federal government's actually good at that. So you look, and that's, like, across a range of programs. Social security. Social security is basically a spending money program. It lifts millions of Americans out of poverty. It's a relatively straightforward program. There's a formula, you get a check. So we're good at things like that.
In education, it does get you to this question of accountability. Federal dollars can play a catalyzing role. They can play a big role in equity, but what are we going to demand in response? You know, it's really easy to point fingers to the federal government and say, "Oh, they're out of touch, and, you know, the federal government shouldn't have much of a role or no department of education." But historically, Kevin, when you look, you really can't find an example of a marginalized population that has been more broadly included in American society where the, sort of, pressure of federal authority hasn't been a big part of that. And that's, you know, civil rights, disability rights, now LGBT issues. It's what we always see.
And so I think the question for the federal level is how do we create a politics around not micromanaging schools, but a politics around how do we demand results, some, sort of, meaningful accountability to make sure kids are being well-served. How do we do that? How do we coalesce around that, coupled with resources and investment?
Kevin: And part of that answer, don't you agree, is dealing with the perception that the federal government is less punitive when it comes to some of those dollars for education.
Andy: We don't want to create a politics around micromanaging schools and the federal government can tell schools to do things, it doesn't mean that they're going to do it well. But how do we create a politics around making sure that all kids are being included in schools? We're focused on accountability for all kids, not just the kids who are the easiest to educate. And the federal government is continuing that, sort of, pressure to make sure that we have equality of opportunity in all corners of the country, not just what we have now in our more affluent enclaves.
Kevin: You're talking about the federal role. This leads to solutions. Historically, part of it is image. This feeling from the states that the federal government puts out these education mandates, this feeling of being punitive, as opposed to supportive, how can the federal government change that impression as opposed to just checking the box or else you're going to not get your money, and be positive from the state's point of view?
Ann: Yeah, well it's both, right? And one person's punitive measure that you're being forced to do is another person's important civil rights measure. The states need to come with a seriousness of purpose around how they are going to deliver education, how are they going to deliver opportunity. That has not always been, you know, particularly across all the states, that has not always been the clean shot you might think it is. And you remember, like, you know, No Child Left Behind, for instance, when people were figuring out the accountability, what was going to be some, sort of, a date certain to anchor accountability in, everybody knew, like the 100% thing, you know, it was always...you know, we all knew that wasn't going to happen. That wasn't the point, but you had to have some, sort of, a goal to work towards. And you had a lot of states where the median performance was, you know, in the 20s and the 30s. And states were seriously saying, "We want to be held accountable for having every kid at grade level and reading in 2030." This was 2001 and 2000, right? I mean, so we were talking about kids who hadn't even been born yet and didn't want to be accountable for teaching those kids to read.
And so states need to come with a seriousness of purpose around, "We have to do better here and we're going to be aggressive. And we're going to really get after that and not kick the can down the road." And the federal government needs to be willing to then create space for that kind of innovation and create some flexibility. And I think that's been a, sort of, tortured marriage over the years, and like any tortured marriage, there's plenty of blame on both sides. And that's not a really productive conversation around the blame. What we need to be thinking about is, sort of, how do we move forward and how do we create those kinds of policy bargains.
Kevin: You know, Andy, you make a really good point. The federal government does have that role of a balancing act. It has to be punitive, it has to be supportive, but we have to remind people that it was Brown v. Board of Education. It was in education where the civil rights movement got his legs, if you will, because the federal government said that you had to treat people the same and not discriminate in schools.
We have to also talk about the elephant in the room. What about the union politics that is pervasive, not just in the federal government, but in the states. And again, I recognize the rights of teachers, but at the same time, how can we make sure that the union politics is more reflective of a holistic approach to educating children and meeting families where they are in addition to preserving teacher's rights?
Andy: Yeah, this is a hard one. You're right, this is the elephant in the room. I mean, you have to give the unions credit. They had a rough decade. I mean, they basically have taken, like, a pair of fours or a pair of threes, and they've played it like it's a pair of aces. It's pretty remarkable what they've done politically. And everybody, particularly in the reform community, should pause and ask why and what the lessons to learn there are.
So I have a couple of questions about them. A big one is...and I think it's a sign of, sort of, our dysfunctional left/right politics. If you ask...and we have asked this, this is not a hypothetical. We've polled this at Bellwether. If you ask Republicans what do they think of teachers' unions and police unions, you get an answer that they think police unions are pretty good, and they're very skeptical of teachers' unions. If you asked Democrats that same question, you get the inverse. They like teachers' unions. They're very skeptical of police unions. But when you get underneath it, you see a lot of the same...it's hard to discipline bad actors. Often, bad actors have long trails of discipline issues before something really bad happens.
You and I are speaking today on the anniversary of the death of George Floyd. You know, the police officer who killed him had a train of discipline issues that hadn't been addressed. Yeah, this was not, like, a one-time thing with him. And we know this. Like this is just, you know, lack of transparency. Police, you know, have very mixed views on body cameras. Teachers don't want video in their classrooms. They don't want value-add, scores published, like all these kinds of things. A lot of the same kinds of things, and yet, it's two very different conversations.
And I think, if you take a look at, sort of, our civic life, particularly our urban civic life, these two institutions are creating just a corrosive relationship with the citizenry, alienating parents, alienating people from vital public services, and really creating problems with our ability to address these services. And in both cases, some of the popular solutions, like defund the police, this is sending us defund the schools. People in the communities, they don't want their public sector defunded. They don't want their public safety or their schools defunded. They just want things to work better for them. They want to be treated with more respect than they are now.
And so I think I raised that to say it highlights our, sort of, dysfunctional politics and the way we talk past each other. I don't think we have a teacher's union problem per se, I think we have a public employee union, in our urban areas in particular, problem. And it also highlights the opportunities there. There may be some opportunities to, in a bipartisan way, get things done. If we become more serious about public sector reform, which doesn't mean... You know, I'm a First Amendment guy. These, like, we should get rid of the unions. I don't think you should ever get rid of Americans' ability to enter into voluntary associations, petition their government, advocate for themselves. That'd be a huge, huge mistake. But ways to how do we get the balance right on those things. And look, this is not a new idea. This is, you know, Franklin Roosevelt said, "This is going to lead to the balance getting out of whack and it's going to be hard to manage government." I think that's the kind of serious conversation that we need to have.
And then the other piece that's a little more near term is simply choice does create an empowering situation in communities. It helps people have more options, exercise a degree of power that they often don't have now, and I think we need to have a more robust conversation around choice in education. There's no other sector where we don't balance, sort of, some governmental rules and policies and a degree of consumer choice. And, you know, we've been trying to do that awkwardly in education. And I think that's an area for really rich conversations around what should that look like going forward? And again, the pandemic, I think really teed that up in a variety of important ways.
Kevin: Well, you know, I agree with the choice reference. By the way, I think that the parent's role and the parent's voice in the future of education policy could be more pronounced in the wake of the pandemic because of the reset that we all had and the fact that parents got a chance to look under the hood, see what was going on in their kid's school.
Andy: People are going to have to make that happen. It's not going to happen just organically. People are busy living their lives. They need to have their kids in school. You, sort of, see there's a lot of frustration with parents on what's happened, with how slow schools were to reopen, with the quality of the instruction they were getting. But people are going to get on with their lives as the pandemic ceases to be, sort of, a huge front and center American phenomena. Like the party is going to get started and other things will be taken their attention. And so it's going to be incumbent on education activists to organize parents, keep them engaged, turn that energy into something, or I do think it will disappear.
Kevin: Yeah. Fair point. For those parents who have looked under the hood and saw what was going on in their kid's classroom, they need to stay engaged and be involved. So last question, this is what I really want to know, Andy, you're the expert. In our search for common ground, as we try to de-politicize education, will there be more politics or less in education over the next five years?
Andy: If I knew the answer to that question, I mean, as much as I like you and like spending time with you, I'd be at the racetrack, if I could forecast things like that. I really don't know. It is hard to miss how strikingly divided we are and how we keep coming up with new ways to be divided. New fights keep breaking out. Some of the old coalitions and frankly, some of the old ways of doing business, where you came together, where there was agreement and you didn't worry about areas of disagreement, you built very pluralistic and diverse political coalitions. that is hard to do. It's hard to do generally, and it's hard to do in our sector. I think, and we are trying to do this at Bellwether, create space for those kinds of conversations. I mean, I don't know how anyone, again, can look at this, we talked about this earlier, and think any faction has a monopoly on the right way to do things. And quite frankly, you look at the results we're getting, everybody should have some humility on that we have a lot to learn and we're trying to create some space for those kinds of conversations.
It is a strident time. And I can't... Like I said, I'm an optimist. I'm going to keep pushing at it. But I can't tell you with any certainty that the next five years are going to, sort of, stitch that back together. They may well leave us even farther apart.
Kevin: Andy Rotherham, I appreciate you, my friend. Thank you for joining us.
Andy: Thanks for having me. I was great to see you, Kevin.
Kevin: You too.
Thanks for joining "What I Want to Know." Be sure to follow and subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app. And don't forget to write a review too. Explore other episodes and dive into our discussions on the future of education. Also encourage you to join the conversation and let me know what you want to know using #WIWTK on social media. That's #WIWTK on social media.
For more information on Stride, visit stridelearning.com. I'm your host, Kevin P. Chavous. Thank you for joining "What I Want to Know."
Senator Ann Davis Duplessis is a senior vice president for Liberty Bank & Trust and a former Louisiana state senator. She was instrumental in passing 57 major laws focused on education reform, including a bill following Hurricane Katrina that allowed the state to take over schools in New Orleans Parish. That bill paved the way for a thriving charter school movement in Louisiana.
Ann is also the president of the Louisiana Federation for Children where she partners with local and national policy leaders and lawmakers to promote educational choice options for working class families.
Andy Rotherham has deep rooted experience in education policy and education politics. He is the co-founder of Bellwether Education Partners, a national nonprofit supporting innovation in education. Andy is also a prolific writer and a professor at the University of Virginia.
Previously, Andy served at the White House as a special assistant on domestic policy to former President Bill Clinton where he focused on education policy and politics.
What I Want to Know
In this podcast, you will hear from leaders in education as we talk through learning solutions for homeschool, online school, education pathways, and topics tailored specifically to online students and parents.