The headline was startling: “Governors Who Push K-12 Overhauls See Popularity Slide.” The polling data that follows shows that, indeed, three governors–Walker in Wisconsin, Scott in Florida, and Kasich in Ohio–who have pushed “sweeping, controversial” education reforms have seen steep drops in their popularity.
Walker’s approve-disapprove rating now stands at 43-53. Kasich faces an even bigger deficit—just 33 percent of Ohio voters approve of his on-the-job performance, while 56 percent disapprove. In Florida, Rick Scott has a 29 – 57 percent gap. (Scott, you may recall, was elected with less than 50 percent of the vote in a very close election.)
But is their unpopularity due primarily to pushing for big changes in K-12 education? Or is the answer more complicated than that?
For an answer, we might take a look at what’s happening in Illinois. Conveniently situated between the two battleground states of Wisconsin and Ohio, Illinois has also been battered by the recession that has decimated the Upper Midwest.
Like the other three states, Illinois has just passed major new education reform legislation. SB 7 makes teacher performance, not just seniority, a driver in key personnel decisions. It is, says Robin Steans, executive director of Advance Illinois, an education advocacy organization, significant not only in its content, but in the way it was developed.
“We had everyone at the table,” Steans said. “Teacher unions, school boards, education reform organizations, and legislators all took part.” The result of that consensus was that the legislation passed the house with 112 yes votes, 1 no vote, and 1 vote of “present.”
Contrast that with what happened in the other three states, where the governors seemed to relish pushing the most polarizing plan possible. Wisconsin’s political travails have dominated the national news. The bill that passed is now being challenged in court, and recall petitions have been filed against nine members of the state senate.
Ohio’s SB 5 is also the subject of a recall election. In Florida, where voters by a two-to-one margin say that the state’s budget is not fair to them, legislation allowing the governor to be recalled has been introduced.
And Illinois? Well, to be fair, Quinn’s popularity was never high. A poll taken before the education legislation had passed showed him with an approval rating of just 31 percent. But the education reforms actually seem to have helped the governor. When the Chicago Tribune gave out grades for the legislative session, education was the only area in which he and the legislature received an A.
It is fashionable, of late, to disparage any legislative reform effort that comes about because of compromise and consensus. But my view is quite the opposite. Consensus (or at least broad agreement) and compromise are really the only ways to effect long-lasting change. Voters agree—they actually like it when politicians compromise.
Which would you rather have: a sweeping reform whose implementation is delayed in the courts and likely to be overturned at the next election? Or a reform effort that elicits buy-in and thus long-term impact? (Anyway, how many pols do you know who would sign on to a reform effort if they knew it meant a recall election was in their future?)
To Steans, the answer is clear. “It’s not enough to pass legislation—then it has to be implemented.” And in the case of SB 7, she says, “Nobody’s rooting for it to fail.”