The risk of partisanship in federal blended learning policy

Our policy research at Keeping Pace is usually focused at the state level because state laws and regulations tend to have a greater immediate impact on digital learning than federal laws. But we are keeping an eye on the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind because major changes to the main federal law governing education would almost certainly impact digital learning at some level, and we have also been keeping tabs on some other proposed federal efforts that would have direct influence on digital learning (i.e. student data privacy). In this context, a salient observation from Brookings is that the recent political skirmish over the Common Core “highlights a key tension facing education advocates seeking to use federal policy to advance their goals: Any benefits from federal involvement may come at the cost of heightened partisan polarization.” (emphasis added)

Brookings’ researchers come to this conclusion based on survey data that show two facts:

1. Significantly more people surveyed support Common Core when Common Core is described but not named, compared to when it is described and named, and

2. Essentially all of the higher level of support comes from people who identify as Republican.

In other words, quite a few Republicans like the ideas behind Common Core, but oppose “Common Core.”

In case any blog readers lean left and suspect that this finding is due to a specific party-affiliated trait that keeps Republicans from seeing straight when an issue is associated with the Obama Administration, Brookings notes that a “similar dynamic was evident in public opinion on No Child Left Behind in the waning years of the George W. Bush administration. Support for the law dropped markedly in questions that referred to it by name, as compared to questions that used otherwise identical language to describe its key provisions. These effects were observed mainly among Democrats, suggesting that the law, despite its bipartisan roots, had come to be closely associated in the public mind with the Republican president.”

Partisanship appears to be increasing. It also appears to be worse at the federal level than at the state level; or at least the political gridlock that results is worse at the federal level. All this suggests that digital learning advocates may benefit from maintaining a focus at the state level, rather than expecting that significant positive change will come from a change to federal laws. As the Common Core saga has shown, any apparent progress in federal policy may be a short-lived or pyrrhic victory.