Traditionally, reformers have had a hard time coming to terms with practical politics. That’s because most reformers have sought to, well, reform politics as usual. They abhorred the practice of politics, and as a result, they often have failed to achieve genuine progress.
There is a new group, however, that aims to change all of that.
The New York State Education Reform Council has gathered together groups that have been advocating for tenure reform, expansion of charter schools and merit pay in the classroom to form one large lobbying organization designed to achieve real reform in the state’s public schools. The council will not have a paid professional staff—unlike the teachers union—but will be funded by private citizens who have had it with the status quo in education.
The council’s goal is to compete with the teachers unions and their countless allies in Albany. That will be no easy task, because the teachers unions are among the most-powerful lobbying groups in the state. “We don’t stand a chance if we’re not aligned and focused,” acknowledged Joe Williams, executive director of Democrats for Education Reform, one of the groups that has joined the Education Reform Council.
The idea is to get reformers on the same page, whether their specific interest is charter schools, merit pay or some other reform. If school reformers can speak with one voice and demonstrate the political acumen that practical politicians respect, then it’s entirely possible that public school students will, at last, have effective advocates in the capital.
For the council to succeed, however, its leaders and its supporters have to understand that being right on an issue often doesn’t matter (just ask those who think that illegal guns should be taken off the street). What matters are those skills that reformers historically have lacked: Determination, patience, charm—yes, charm—and, in the end, naked political power and the willingness to use it.
Reformers often have recoiled from the tactics needed to get legislation passed. The Education Reform Council is aligned against another group—the teachers unions—that will stop at nothing to protect the status quo.
The council must be willing to trade legislative punches with a true political heavyweight. That’s the only way it will succeed, and the only way New York’s public school students will see the benefits of reform.