What can education reformers learn from the gay marriage movement?

There’s a lot of interest in this question in ed-reform circles today; Alexander Russo sketches the line of thinking here. It’s understandable, considering how successful proponents of gay marriage*  have been in changing public opinion, state statutes, and, perhaps soon, constitutional law on the issue. If only education reformers could be so lucky!

Some of the lessons being bandied about include the following:

  • Picking one issue and rallying the whole movement behind it (gay marriage instead of gays in the military, for example)
  • Reframing the debate (in this case, from “gay rights” to embracing the “responsibilities” that marriage brings)
  • Making sure that movement leaders keep a low profile

So can we make a plausible education analogy? I think it’s a stretch, and not just because ed reformers love to appear on magazine covers. Gay marriage is fundamentally a moral issue. Legalizing it doesn’t cost taxpayers any serious money; it won’t balloon the deficit; there are no “vested interests” in terms of employee unions protecting their pensions or rapacious corporations seeking to make a fast buck. It’s simply a matter of inclusion and freedom on one side, tradition and gut feelings on the other. It’s a classic social issue.

Not so with education reform. Though all sides of its debates try to claim the moral high ground and use moralistic rhetoric, making schools work better is largely a management/service/governance challenge.

Take the question of “picking one issue” to rally around. Which would it be? Teacher evaluations? Tenure? Common Core? School choice? Funding? While any of these can be framed as an issue of right or wrong, once you get serious about specifics, a world of complexity unveils itself. Sure, bad teachers should be fired. But who decides if they are bad? Using what metric? What safeguards do you put in place? Yes, children should have a right to go to the school of their choice. But what if the schools don’t want them? What if their parents don’t pay property taxes where the school is located? What if parents choose poorly?

In fact, education reform is more akin to health-care reform. In both cases, we’re talking about big chunks of the economy, much of it paid for with tax dollars; wrestling with issues of quality and equity; and trying to ascertain the appropriate role of government versus the private sector.

Even in the aftermath of the Affordable Healthcare Act, you don’t hear people asking what ed reformers might learn from health-care reform. But we should. And the answer? It’s complicated.

 * Which, yes, I support.

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