We need to return education policy to its bipartisan roots
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Education has a powerful legacy as an historically non-partisan issue. Policymaking in this area has long benefited from periods of bipartisan collaboration. We have seen this firsthand as part of our work in Washington state and Wisconsin.

As our national politics has become more partisan than ever, it falls upon us as state legislators to take the lead in returning education policymaking to its legacy as a bipartisan priority. The good news is, there is an opportunity before us.

The 2018 midterm elections brought about considerable change in state houses and legislatures across the country, which will have a significant impact on future education policy. At a time when the partisan nature of our politics is at an all-time high, the results also signaled an increased desire from the electorate to see us focus on creating bipartisan solutions to some of our greatest educational challenges.


2019 has seen a slew of new state board of education members, as well as new governors’ education advisors and state education chiefs. Hundreds of new state legislators were sworn in, including many former educators among them.

The role of states in setting education policy has varied over the years, in part due to directives at the federal level like No Child Left Behind and the Every Student Succeeds Act. But regardless of the reason, we must take this responsibility and authority over education policy very seriously.

According to a 2018 Gallup poll on education, 55 percent of the public is dissatisfied with the state of K-12 education in the U.S. In fact, over the last 20 years, public satisfaction has topped 48 percent only once, in 2004. This is both shocking and unacceptable. We need to understand what is at the core of this dissatisfaction and develop policies that ensure that every child receives a quality education that meets the student’s and their family’s expectations and needs.

We must also take it upon ourselves to improve civil discourse and lead constructive debates about the future of education, and, most importantly, how to make it work for everyone. Students, parents and the education workforce itself want us to include them in the creation of policy and to build relationships across party lines. We need to listen.

To help us tackle these challenges, the Aspen Institute Education & Society Program worked with leaders from the left and the right, from communities, schools and statehouses, to create new resources steeped in research and best practices for policymakers to better design education policy. The resources can be found at www.aspeninstitute.org/eduleadership.


These tools flip the traditional approach to education policy and instead put parents, students and the state’s workforce needs front and center -- an approach that has been shown to yield a higher level of buy-in and long-term success.

Our families and students deserve a voice in our education decision-making. At the end of the day, they are the biggest beneficiaries of our education systems. These new resources can help state education teams determine what they need in order to develop and implement a coherent education vision and plan, including leveraging the Every Student Succeeds Act and avoiding potential obstacles along the way.

School choice is one of the issues covered by these new tools. It exists along a continuum and we need to work with stakeholders to understand local and historical context to best determine which options are the right fits for students, families, and communities within our states. The School Choice brief, produced in partnership with Education Reform Now and the Foundation for Excellence in Education, can serve as an effective guide.

The first question lawmakers should ask when debating school choice policies is, “What’s best for students?” Boosting academic achievement should be one of the primary goals of any education policy, and therefore should be a primary consideration when discussing alternative education options. And throughout the school choice debate, it is imperative that states create policies that encourage transparency, ensure accountability, and provide equitable opportunities for every student to achieve their full potential.

As state leaders, we also know how imperative a well-prepared workforce is for our states to thrive economically. All students need to graduate from high school prepared to attend college and pursue meaningful, family-sustaining careers. That is the least we can do for them.

But thousands of jobs at the state level -- and millions nationwide -- go unfilled while a similar number of jobseekers remain unable to find sufficient employment. We have an obligation to improve workforce readiness. The status quo is simply unsustainable for our states and as a nation. We have been living in a global economy for some time now; we must be able to compete with the best workforce possible.

Produced in partnership with Education Strategy Group and The Foundation for Excellence in Education, Aspen’s brief on Career Readiness can help us build consensus and work with stakeholders across sectors to ensure that career readiness and workforce development initiatives are targeted to meet the needs of students, communities and employers. There really is no other choice.

Sharon Tomiko Santos is a Democratic Washington state representative and chairs the House Education committee. Luther Olsen is a Republican Wisconsin state senator. He serves as the chair of the Education Committee and on the Executive Committee and Steering Committee for the Education Commission of the States.