The Importance of Having a Seat at the Table

Having a “seat at the table” is especially important to me as a five-year-old. Don’t get me wrong; I love my Mickey Mouse table and chairs, and there are definitely benefits to sitting at the kids table—food fights, extra dessert, and the social acceptability of using spaghetti noodles as walrus tusks, to name a few. But there are good reasons to want to sit at the grown-up table, too. And as I get older (very, very slowly), I’m starting to wonder about the selection process used to determine which “adults” get to sit at the education policy grown-ups table.

Take, for instance, presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s recent address to the National Education Association, during which she told a room full of NEA delegates that the union will “always have a seat at the table.” To my knowledge, she’s made no such promises to any other education group. Will Mrs. Clinton extend the same promise to the charter school community, which serves more than 2.5 million kids in nearly 7,000 schools across the nation?

NEA delegates’ boos and catcalls when Clinton said during the same speech that maybe, just maybe, traditional public schools might be able to learn from successful charters make it pretty clear that the union does not intend to incorporate such voices in the discussion. They presumably would have been happier if Clinton had reiterated her factually inaccurate attack on charters in November 2015. This animus begs the question: How much authority does NEA’s “seat at the table” buy when it comes to deciding who else gets to sit in the grown-up seats?

And what about supporters of education reform more generally? Clinton has made it clear before that she opposes other aspects of education reform like strengthened teacher evaluations—and, by extension, tenure reform, pay-for-performance, and merit-based personnel decisions. She reiterated that position in her speech this week. Those positions seem to have made some folks, many of whom are members of her own party, pretty nervous. Will the increasingly bipartisan reform movement be guaranteed a “seat at the table” if she wins the presidency in 2016?

Colorado is wrestling with many of these same questions at home. The super subgroups issue we discussed at length last month largely arose as a result of the state’s Accountability Working Group (AWG). That group includes the education establishment’s iron triangle in Colorado—Colorado Education Association, Colorado Association of School Boards, and Colorado Association of School Executives—and a number of district representatives. It does not include any reform-minded organizations or advocates. Yet it quickly became clear that those groups had strong, well-founded opinions on the subgroups issue—opinions that ultimately led to the situation being resolved in the best interests of students and taxpayers.

Following the subgroups debacle, CDE solicited AWG applications from reform groups across the political spectrum. Yours truly even submitted one, though I have yet to hear anything back. I won’t hold my breath.

The issue of who sits at which table was further highlighted in a Chalkbeat article this morning. The article covered the Colorado State Board of Education’s attempt to craft a plan and balance competing perspectives when it comes to adjusting Colorado education policy to the newly enacted Every Student Succeeds Act. The article includes extensive comment from CEA’s president, Kerrie Dallman, who obviously feels entitled to rebuke board chair Steve Durham for daring to have priorities not wholly in line with those of the union.

But even Durham himself seems reluctant to allow “special interest groups” to hold much sway over the proceedings. From the Chalkbeat article:

“If I were going to put on my cynical hat — and I do often — I can predict what the position of every one of these groups is going to be,” Durham said at the meeting. “They are not our ultimate constituents. Our constituents are the children.”

But vice chair Angelika Schroeder, a Democrat from Boulder, cautioned: “We exclude them at our own peril.”

That discussion led to a “compromise,” Durham wrote in a June 13 email obtained by Chalkbeat, that includes the board appointing a variety of members to a committee that will be responsible for writing the plan. Organizations such as CEA and CASB will also be asked to name representatives.

What Durham says isn’t unfair, and I applaud his constant return to the idea that SBOE exists to serve children rather than adults. As a matter of fact, that should be the mantra of every education group in Colorado.

But I worry that we may be defining “special interest groups” in a way that leads to officially sanctioned groupthink and policy control by one side of the conversation. After all, what are CEA, CASB, and CASE if not “special interest groups”? I see their lobbyists at the Colorado Capitol, read their missives and newsletters, and follow their statements in the press. They clearly have their own agendas, and they spend more time and money pushing those agendas than most any reform organization I know of.

Even the “compromise” mentioned above seems to have stacked the deck against reform. The full memo mentions that SBOE will appoint a taxpayer, a parent, a representative from the Colorado Rural Council, and one representative from the “the children’s advocacy organizations.” Assuming that last bit is a euphemism for the reform community, I feel compelled to point out that no single representative could ever hope to fairly represent the broad philosophical positions and varied views of Colorado’s vibrant reform community. No matter who is chosen to fill this spot, at least some voices will be excluded.

The education establishment, on the other hand, seems to face no such obstacle. The memo indicates that CASE, CASB, CEA, CDE, and CDHE will each get their own representative on the committee. Once seated, there is little doubt which “interests” CEA, CASE, and CASB will work toward.

There is something to be said for balance and the healthy competition of ideas. Yet neither of those things can exist if the only organizations that enjoy guaranteed “seats at the table” are those representing the interests of the education establishment. Leaving other groups, perspectives, and philosophies at the kiddie table unnecessarily derails what could otherwise be highly productive debates. And there’s a risk: You never know when those frustrated kiddos might sling an errant meatball or chunk of cake your way.

Here’s hoping education discussions at all levels start incorporating more diverse voices than those offered by groups that live entirely within the bubble of the education establishment.