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The ongoing search for real common ground in education

Editor’s Note: Graig Meyer is on a quest this session to find common ground among legislators for the benefit of our students. After a three-part series this week about his own quest for common ground, he is going to blog for EdNC about a bill with potential for common ground as it winds its way through the legislative process.


Most Americans say they want politicians to work together across partisan differences. I want that, too. That’s why in November 2014 I decided to accept an invitation to attend former Florida Governor Jeb Bush’s Summit for Education Reform along with what I thought would be a bipartisan group of legislators from North Carolina. As it turned out, I was the only Democratic legislator in our group.

During my sixteen years working in public education, I attended many events where I wished that policymakers from the other side of the political spectrum also had been present. I believed that if they could just hear the logic of what was being discussed, they would understand and agree about the importance of the issue and how to address it.

Being on the other side was a fascinating learning experience. I went in open to listening to what was presented, but I certainly also was holding on to my beliefs.

Contrary to a popular liberal narrative, everyone I spoke to cared deeply about our education system.

The most fascinating part of being a Democrat at the event was that, because it was so heavily attended by Republicans, most people assumed I was one, too. Often, people I talked to weren’t trying to play politics with me; they were telling me what they really believed. It was refreshing because I was sincere in wanting to learn what they were thinking. We didn’t have to dance around partisan differences.

I found myself asking a lot of questions to try to understand their motivations. Contrary to a popular liberal narrative, everyone I spoke to cared deeply about our education system. Many of them were motivated by a genuine desire to help children from poor families and communities. They also had a conservative distrust of government’s ability to fix failing schools, and a complementary belief that parents should have more power to make educational decisions for their children.

I even found my mind changing on one occasion. North Carolina recently implemented a system to give every school a letter grade (A through F). I had been opposed to the grading system because the formula that North Carolina uses seemed too simplistic to me, and for many schools it feels punitive. Seeing Florida’s system convinced me that school grading actually could be a good idea — if done well. I liked that Florida’s system is based on a more complex set of variables and seems more aspirational than punitive.

On the other hand, there were other discussions that left me feeling put off, usually when I sensed the conservative push for unlimited charter schools and private school vouchers. Eventually, I started asking other attendees what policy ideas they had for public schools that still struggle after a lot of kids leave through “choice” programs. The unsatisfying answer that I got was that maybe the families who choose to stay in those schools should come together to fix them or that the schools should just be closed. I find those solutions untenable.

What really bothered me was the lack of willingness to have true dialogue about different perspectives.

When people found out that I was a Democrat, reactions were mixed. Some people were curious about finding a Democratic legislator there, but others were immediately skeptical and guarded.

While I did my best to be the statesman who not only reaches across the aisle but also immerses himself in his opponents’ world, I still found myself struggling. Bridging our differences was much harder than I thought it would be, but not because of disagreements that I had with their policies. It was harder on an emotional level.

What really bothered me was the lack of willingness to have true dialogue about different perspectives.

I started to notice myself bristling as I realized the summit was a very comfortable space for Republicans to bash Democrats. I’m used to bashing, of course, but somehow I hoped that this would be different out of a shared interest in improving our education system.

My discomfort deepened as presenters and attendees consistently used the term “reformers.” Although I consider myself a dedicated proponent of school reform, their use of the term “reformer” clearly was not designed to include me. It became clear that, in this setting, “reformer” referred to those who prefer a market-based ideology that is pro-school choice, pro-accountability, and anti-union. There was no similar name for traditional public school advocates, but there was consistent scorn cast on anyone who dared to support teachers’ unions.

In the end, I knew that the inability to find real common ground wasn’t so much about the conference itself. The conference just exposed the deeply partisan and philosophical divides in our education policy debates.

Perhaps most disturbingly, the term often was accompanied by a dismissiveness implying that anyone who isn’t a reformer doesn’t truly care about kids. This all reminded me of middle school cafeteria bullying: The in-group creates a term to label itself as cool, and anyone who doesn’t receive the label is identified as being less than that. I didn’t like that, but I also knew that my friends and allies probably would respond similarly by saying that it’s these “reformers” who don’t care about kids. That reflexive judgment from both sides saddens me.

In the end, I knew that the inability to find real common ground wasn’t so much about the conference itself. The conference just exposed the deeply partisan and philosophical divides in our education policy debates.

As a Democrat in North Carolina’s General Assembly, I know that I can’t push my own education policy agenda forward without collaborating with Republicans. As the conference closed, I tried to extend myself one more time by asking one of my Republican colleagues, “What did you see here that you want to bring back to North Carolina? Can we work together on any of your ideas?” He looked shocked to even hear my offer. But we promised to meet, and I look forward to the conversation. I’ll bring a few ideas of my own.

Rep. Graig Meyer

Representative Graig Meyer (D-Orange) represents House District 50, including Orange and Caswell counties, and is currently serving his fourth term. Rep. Meyer is an educator and a social worker who consults with public schools on creating equitable learning environments.