THE BLOG
11/03/2014 02:05 pm ET Updated Dec 31, 2014

The Governors and Vergara: Why It's Both Necessary -- and Avoidable -- to Take Education Reform to Court

Policymakers, pundits and ed reformers are gleeful in the wake of the Vergara decision finding the practice of teacher tenure in California unconstitutional. It's been nearly 30 years since the issue of teacher union protections was first raised as a possible cause for the failing schools first revealed in A Nation at Risk. While few love the idea of taking policy issues to court, weak-kneed politicians have brought it on themselves. After all, few heroes remain in our states' leadership who are willing to buck the unions for fear of negative political consequences. History shows us the outcomes of such actions are otherwise, however. Brave governors, in particular, have demonstrated that taking the principled position actually pays off. As the Wall Street Journal opined just a few weeks ago, "...There's no reward for restraint on [education reform], so political leaders might as well do something worthwhile." Truer words have seldom been spoken.

Not only is holding back on education reform never rewarded, it's inevitably punished, as Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett has learned from the union-led assault on his reelection campaign. Like so many governors who promise and yet fail to deliver big on education reform, he insisted that the teachers union were to maintain a seat at the table. That kind invitation earned him their support of his opponent who will likely take over and accelerate the union campaign against reform. It's a cautionary tale for the 36 sets of candidates running for chief executive of their state. Yet, an analysis by The Center for Education Reform finds that, out of 36 races for Governor this year - in what is a dramatic opportunity to change course in the states - only 17 of 28 incumbents are considered reformers. Scholar Frederick Hess of AEI reports that only 3% of all gubernatorial candidates even talk about education reform on their website!

Reform opponents only win when the state's executive lets them, as history shows.

Governor John Engler led Michigan in the 90's to adopt decentralized funding, a break the mold charter law, and tests with teeth. He was rewarded with bi-partisan support, and three terms in office.

Governor William Weld (R-MA) led the enactment of one of the nation's earliest charter laws in 1993, against fierce union opposition and would win a landslide reelection in 1994.

Colorado's Bill Owens' controversial improvements to the state charter school law, a new school choice program, and accountability via school report cards would earn him the largest reelection in history in 2002.

Virginia standards and high stakes testing didn't preclude Governor George Allen from winning a Senate seat despite national union opposition. George Voinovich won a huge reelection in Ohio after creating vouchers and charter schools, and was later elected to the U.S. Senate showing again that the union bark was much bigger than the bite. Christie Todd-Whitman did not cow-tow to the myth of union domination in her native New Jersey. She served two terms, and ushered in charter schools and high standards.

And from 1999-2007, Jeb Bush would enact sweeping reforms as Governor of Florida, and remains today one of the most well-respected state leaders of all time, by members of both parties.

While Republicans have found it easier to buck constituencies that are more at home in the other party, let's not forget that Democrats seeded early attempts to innovate. Minnesota's Rudy Perpich was the first to celebrate public school choice and charters, and Delaware's Tom Carper and then U.S. Senator Joe Biden were once on board. Yet it was Bill Clinton who was right there with many a Republican governor endorsing reform, before it was cool, as it were. From Arkansas, he praised--in writing--State Representative Polly Williams, an African-American leader in Wisconsin, in her fight for vouchers for the poor. He would join hands at the famous Charlottesville Summit with President George H.W. Bush in calling for improvements that included performance-based accountability and choice, though as president he would retreat considerably.

Not since these Governors served has there been such a critical mass at one time accomplishing dramatic changes to the once stagnant school system. Those who take up the baton with gusto and boldly challenge the status quo are not only rewarded with public support, but often emerge as political stars.

Some have tried since, and a few have succeeded, but not like this coalition of Governors, who are largely responsible for why there is education reform, at all, today.

Yes, some bright spots of success among sitting Governors exist; Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, Tennessee's Bill Haslam, and Colorado's John Hickenlooper have all increased choice and accountability, modestly, though, when compared to the sea-changing work of previous generations. Others have been wholly ineffective despite promises to the contrary.

Why is there so little valor anymore? The real problem is that many ed reformers themselves, knowing little of the early battles, wrongly believe conciliation is superior to struggle and so they operate as if the battle is over. Many newer organizations believe that demanding results is unpractical and would rather get along, avoiding contentious debates that have proven always to make policy results better in the long run.

The contrast between Tom Corbett and Tom Ridge as Pennsylvania governor dispels the myth that being conciliatory gets you results. Corbett started out looking for commonality. Ridge started out firm about his goals and vocal about his opposition. He would use that clarity of purpose to bridge a longtime partisan gap with Philadelphia Democrat Dwight Evans on his side, and together they put the unions on notice that they were demanding reform. That's leadership.

The nation is lacking in leadership - in education reform particularly - because we don't demand it anymore. It's folly to fear the unions and the status quo forces; they are paper tigers. Their actions are only as strong as the politician is weak. They seem terrifying, as Mao Tse-Tung put it, but in reality, are weak or ineffectual. When I ran into Colorado's Owens a few years after he'd left his gubernatorial post, he thanked me for the leadership my organization showed. "You always had people out there pushing us, demanding we do more and then helping us get it done. Thank you." Citizens need to give them incentives, and then have their backs.

Politicians don't lose by fighting for education reform. They lose by being inarticulate and squishy. With just a few days more before the election it's worth recognizing that bold state leadership can indeed cure many ills, is more likely to sustain change, and avoids the need to take every problem to court.