A week out from the U.S. election, the left-leaning London Guardian runs with a piece praising Jeb Bush’s education reforms in Florida—and touting Bush as the source of Obama’s own ideas on education reform.
For over a decade now, schools in Florida have been graded from A to F based on the performance and progress of their pupils in reading, writing, maths and science tests. A-grade or improving schools are rewarded with extra money, while schools receiving the lowest grade twice in a row face closure.
It is a part of a package of reforms introduced under former governor Jeb Bush, which have become a model for other states and has been echoed in Barack Obama’s education policy.
Obama has praised Bush as a “champion of education reform”, and the changes in Florida are mirrored in many elements of the president’s signature education initiative Race to the Top.
The Obama initiative is a competition for federal funds, awarded to states that embrace changes including charter schools and performance pay for teachers.
Up to a point, Lord Copper: if Jeb Bush were really the inspiration for President Obama we doubt the teachers’ unions would be so grimly bent on re-electing the democrat come hell or high water (both of which, by the way are heading toward the northeastern United States this weekend).
But here’s the larger point: what was once viewed by the conventional wisdom and the smug chattering classes as an ugly conservative attack on that most sacred of blue, progressive institutions (the public school system run by life-tenured, certified education professionals on civil service principles) has in the last fifteen years emerged as the center of a growing national consensus on school reform.
Even very liberal Democrats like President Obama now take some of the key elements of this formerly ultra-conservative agenda into account when crafting their own approaches. Not even the hated name of Bush or the fact that praising Jeb Bush’s education reforms strengthens his hand in a possible future presidential election campaign stops prominent Democrats from jumping on the bandwagon.
The Bush changes in Florida aren’t the last word in education reform. There is much more that we can do to enhance the way American schools work, and in the end we are going to have to ask much more fundamental questions about what schools are for. (When you look at how little so many Americans learn in 12 years of compulsory classroom attendance, it’s impossible to deny that much of what we are doing is providing a singularly expensive and unpleasant form of babysitting.)
Still, however incomplete they are and however much more work remains to be done in the cause of education reform, the progress of the Bush reforms in Florida shows how change often works in American politics: a good idea starts in one political camp and, when tested against reality in one of our fifty ‘laboratories of democracy’ it works so well that it enters the mainstream of national discourse.
Our political parties may be ideological in some of their inspirations and their rhetoric, but they are pragmatic. If an approach to an issue works and pleases voters, political leaders try to bring it on board.
This is especially true at times of transition like the present. The classical progressive approach to social problems has long jumped the shark; this means that conservative and Tea Party activists can seize the political high ground if they can convert slogans and preferences into policies that work. If you can get better educational outcomes for less money, your ideas will gain traction. If you can provide necessary environmental protection while creating a more favorable business climate, your state will start to grow—and people around the country will notice.
The strength of a ‘natural party of government’ is that those who believe in the ideological principles of a political movement do, on a long term, sustainable basis, a better job than their opponents at developing policies that address the actual problems of the American people. From the 1930s to the 1960s, the key ideas of the Democrats (like Bismarckian social insurance programs, government as the umpire in an economy of stable oligpolies and monopolies, expansionary fiscal policy during the Bretton Woods era when the dollar was the global monetary yardstick) worked so well that Republican presidents like Eisenhower and Nixon worked within a basically Democratic policy framework.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the conservative ideas espoused by President Reagan seemed to work, and so a Democratic president like Bill Clinton made some long term Republican ideas (welfare reform, fiscal restraint) an important part of his governing approach.
But the point is that longterm power is less about shouting slogans and proclaiming ideological principles. It is about using your political ideology to build policies that work so well that your political opponents try to steal them. You know you are winning when the other side promises to carry out the main ideas in your vision.
In a politics and poll obsessed period like the closing days of a national presidential campaign, it can be hard to remember, but the principle is something that any serious political activist of whatever ideological stripe can’t afford to forget. In America, political power doesn’t flow out of the barrel of a gun, and it doesn’t flow out of a megaphone either. Real political power — enduring, transformational political power — is the result of good policy. Fix problems that matter, and the people will listen to your ideas.