YESTERDAY I wrote about my long-held contention that we can improve education in South Carolina by taking the best ideas from across the political spectrum and putting them together to craft a grand compromise. But in the poisonous political environment that has engulfed our nation, this can seem like an impossible dream.
I was reminded of how pervasive this poison is last month, when I read a letter to the editor defending the 2010 declaration by U.S. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell that his top goal was to make Barack Obama a one-term president. “Why would any party that just lost a presidential election not do everything in its power to make the winner a one-term president?” the writer asked, and as I read those words, I suddenly realized that there are people who honestly do not know how destructive that approach to government is — or how ahistoric it is. People who honestly do not know that no congressional leader had said such a thing in modern history. Maybe many have thought it — and certainly the opposition party has been moving more in that direction with each new president — but they didn’t say it.
The tradition in this nation — in any functioning democracy — is for the party out of power to play the role of loyal opposition, with an emphasis on loyal. That means that when your side isn’t in charge, you still fight for your ideas, but in the context of respect for the voters’ decisions — and in the context of governing, not merely politicking. So when the majority proposes an idea you dislike, you work to amend it so it’ll be a little less dislikable.
And yes, lots of you are rolling your eyes right now, but I’m writing about this because here in South Carolina, we recently saw two very clear examples of how this can work — indeed, of how my grand education compromise can come about.
The examples came from former Gov. Dick Riley, a Democrat who also served as education secretary under Bill Clinton, and former state Education Superintendent Barbara Nielsen, a Republican, who were invited to testify at the first meeting of the special panel that House Speaker Jay Lucas assembled to come up with a response to the state Supreme Court’s order to start providing an adequate education to all children in South Carolina.
What was striking was how many suggestions Mr. Riley made that could have come from Republicans and how many suggestions Dr. Nielsen made that could have come from Democrats. Well, it was striking if you don’t realize that the best ideas from both parties have a lot more to do with pragmatism than partisanship or ideology, as too many people seem not to.
Clearly, Mr. Riley thinks the state needs to spend more money to educate poor children, but that wasn’t the focus of his remarks. After urging the committee to start by inventorying what’s working in S.C. schools (an inherently conservative idea), he talked about the importance of making sure children can read, and read well, by the end of the third grade. That was one of the centerpiece ideas of Republican Mick Zais, the most ideologically driven education superintendent I’ve ever encountered.
Mr. Riley told panelists they needed to find a way to provide personalized instruction for students, which is one of the favorite buzz phrases of the school choice movement that’s most closely tied to the GOP.
And he urged them to focus on building — and using — public support, particularly in the form of school-community partnerships. “You will be amazed by how many resources are in a community that never have been tapped to support education,” he said, and he could have been channeling Gov. Nikki Haley’s much-ridiculed call for churches and other community groups to get to work fixing our schools. As much as critics derided it as a convenient out for a governor who, at the time, was doing nothing to support public education, it’s an idea that holds much promise, particularly if we can strip it of its partisanship and focus on what people of faith owe to the least of these, as the state’s Roman Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran and Methodist churches are working to do.
Dr. Neilsen hewed to more predictably Republican themes, and prescriptive solutions — streamlining a tangle of separate budgets, conducting audits to determine where the money is going, insisting on zero-based budgeting — that reminded me of her work with the libertarian S.C. Policy Council. But it was all presented in the context of paying teachers more — a lot more — and with the clear implication that while you don’t throw money willy-nilly at this or any problem, more money likely is needed to make the changes she suggests.
Indeed, it was Dr. Neilsen — not Mr. Riley, not former Democratic Education Superintendent Inez Tenenbaum — who made some of the most impassioned comments about the urgency of investing in poor children in poor school districts, as she spoke of the outrage of teachers who make so little that they qualify for food stamps and urged panel members to be guided by these questions: “Would I put my child in this district or in this school? If not, then whose child should have to go there?”
In essence, the message from both Mr. Riley and Dr. Nielsen was this: Yes, we need to spend more, which Republicans don’t generally want to do, but we also must be much more rigorous about making sure we spend it in the right way, which Democrats too often resist, and we must understand that government alone won’t solve our problem.
Of course it’s never easy to move from such generalities to a specific plan, but when you think of it in those terms, it’s hard to see how any reasonable person could disagree with that set of generalities. The problem is that we don’t usually think of it in those terms: We think of it in terms of Republican ideas vs. Democratic ideas, which is a guaranteed route to gridlock.
Fortunately, there are still people here in South Carolina, and not just former elected officials, who can see past that and work past that. Those are the people who can create solutions to our problems — if we’ll let them.