5 Lessons From Civics in How to Achieve Agreement Across the Political Divide

Cox & Nussle: Communication, broad appeal, political cover make it possible to find cross-partisan solutions that benefit children and communities.

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It is not news that in recent years the political climate surrounding education policy has become increasingly polarized. Bipartisan cooperation, once a cornerstone of education reform, is now seen as weakness and a concession of values, rather than a strength. This shift poses challenges to advancing reforms and initiatives. A fresh approach is needed.

Rather than thinking about bipartisanship in the traditional sense, advocates should consider a cross-partisan approach. This means achieving policy success despite support across the political divide, not because of it. Advocates who seek cross-partisan success will need to think of ways to communicate and motivate policymakers based on what these political actors care about most — animating their core constituencies. Initiatives that offer wins for all involved, even from different ideological perspectives, can unite stakeholders around shared progress.

While achieving cross-partisan agreement in a divided political environment may seem daunting, there are successes to draw upon.

Take civics education: a significant focus for both political parties, given that 80% of likely voters value it highly. States are rolling out civics mandates, like Indiana’s requirement for a sixth-grade course and Utah’s grants for local pilot programs that promote innovation in teaching and learning. By signaling a renewed focus on civics and allowing for local control within state standards, these efforts gained broad appeal, promoting both national pride (an important value on the right) and civic engagement (an important value on the left).

Civics initiatives and other successful policies are characterized by several key practices: 

Clear Communication and Broad Appeal: Policy initiatives must be easy to communicate in order to build a broad base of support. The success of the science of reading, for example, demonstrates the power of simplicity and relatability in communication. This initiative gained widespread traction when advocates articulated a clear, compelling message about the failures of reading curricula then in place and the importance of evidence-based literacy instruction. The problem and solutions were easy to understand and resonated deeply among voters spanning the political spectrum. With parents and teachers aligned, policymakers eagerly followed, resulting in swift legislative changes in 37 states.

Responsiveness to Local Concerns: It has been famously said that all politics is local. Policy solutions tailored to specific local problems can transcend political polarization. The Interstate Teacher Mobility Compact, for example, allows teachers’ licenses to be recognized in all 11 member states. This is of particular concern to military families, who relocate frequently, often across state lines. By responding directly to their unique needs, the compact earned cross-partisan support by solving a universally recognized, and highly local, problem.

Political Cover: When a change in policy is new or potentially controversial, it helps for there to be support or a mandate from a higher political or legal power. In the overhaul of Virginia’s history standards, for example, political cover was provided by an immovable deadline required by law, the support of the governor and a significant commitment to a public feedback process. After the bipartisan state Board of Education rejected the first draft, several months of work by board members, school officials and advocacy organizations produced a new version. The board held six public meetings around the state and took a leadership role in driving the process. Despite what began as a highly politicized process, new standards emerged because of the board’s mandate — members didn’t have the option to argue about their opinions, were required to act and had to do it together. While the undertaking was long and messy, it ultimately led to standards that were accepted by the board, the governor and the community, reflecting a compromise across differing viewpoints that was widely hailed in the media as a success.

Mutual Wins: In politics, everyone is trying to achieve a win for their side. A key to cross-partisan success is finding a path for each side to claim victory. Efforts to raise teacher pay, in states such as Arkansas, and enhance civics education, as in New Jersey and Georgia, demonstrate the potential for policies to deliver wins for all stakeholders. By identifying shared goals such as educational quality and civic responsibility, but allowing each side to prioritize those goals differently, these initiatives allow for political independence but ultimately arrive at the same policy destination.

Strategic Use of Media: It is undeniable that media is powerful in shaping public policy — for example, the influence of the “Sold a Story” podcast on reading instruction reforms. This piece of investigative journalism catalyzed a wave of legislation focused on evidence-based reading practices, showcasing how media can effectively accelerate educational reforms by highlighting research-backed solutions, elevating the voices of parents and teachers, and mobilizing public and legislative support.

A cross-partisan approach could be the new strategic imperative for success in education policy, both for legislative wins and the long-term benefit of children and communities. Different political actors may need to take different roads to the ultimate destination of a common-ground solution. But the success of all students, and the country, depends on getting there together.

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