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Teachers College, Columbia University
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A Dose of Realpolitik

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Sharon Lynn Kagan

D.C. up close, via TC's Federal Policy Institute

How to argue for increased education funding at a time when society seems more focused on Medicare, terrorism, the environment and other issues?

That was the question posed to a group of 30-odd students from the Teachers College Federal Policy Institute (FPI) one afternoon this past January by Ed Kealy, Executive Director of the Committee for Education.  

"A lot of people see investing in education as deficit spending, so it's very important to reframe the issue," Kealy told his listeners, who had come to Washington for the week-long visit that is one of the highpoints of the FPI experience. "Our position is that spending on education is an investment in the workforce, because having a better-educated citizenry is the way to remain competitive with rising economic powers such as China and India."

With 104 member organizations reflecting political views of every stripe, it might seem amazing that the Committee- '"the nation's largest coalition of education-focused groups'"- has a position on anything. But that's Lesson One of FPI: policy-making is a collaborative effort that works best when it reflects the views of all the constituents at the table.

More broadly, FPI is a hands-on exploration of the issues shaping federal policy on education, from school funding and high-stakes testing to determining who is qualified to teach. It's also a crash course in how the shifts in America's two-party system and the politics of constructing legislation affect everything from Head Start to graduate education.

"I have always felt that the role of an academic institution is to provide an array of issues and give students all the tools necessary to analyze them," says Professor Sharon Lynn Kagan, who teaches FPI. "The Federal Policy Institute lets our students test what they've learned in their readings against the reality of what they see in Washington."

Kagan, who is also TC's Associate Dean for Policy and head of the College's Office of Policy and Research, knows a thing or two about political realities. As a staff intern for both Democratic and Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill earlier in her career, she absorbed a full range of views and philosophies touching on education policy. She has since gone on to advise presidential administrations, governors, and the governments of other countries on early childhood education, which is her own particular specialty.

"Education is about understanding multiple perspectives, and educators have a responsibility to present that kind of breadth," she says. "I've tried to embed that outlook in my teaching and in the FPI experience."

Through FPI, students attend several class sessions at TC on the historical and current involvement of the federal government in education. In Washington, they observe and talk to leaders on Capitol Hill and their staff members, officials in the U.S. Department of Education, and heads of education policy think tanks, research centers and advocacy organizations. During one session in January, this year's TC delegation heard senior Republican and Democratic legislative aides from the House and Senate education committees talk about how they came to their jobs. Some were former educators and researchers; some had worked in state governments. One said she'd started out opening mail and answering phones in congressional offices on Capitol Hill. Beyond their personal stories of how they came to work on the Hill, these staffers offered a candid portrayal of partisanship in policymaking and an insider's view of the key relationships and roles of legislative staff.

The FPI students themselves were similarly diverse, with majors that ranged from international education to nursing education.  The group also included active classroom teachers and several non-degree students.

"I teach high school students about how government works, so it's great to see it first-hand," said Mary Kate Blaine, a TC alumna who teaches at the Notre Dame School in Manhattan.

Upon their return to TC, the FPI students are asked to prepare a policy analysis and give mock testimony on an education policy topic of their choosing. As with congressional testimony, they are given just three minutes to make the case for why their particular issue is important and then recommend a course of action.  It's daunting work, but if the meeting with Ed Kealy was any indication, it was clear that, by week's end in Washington, the group was mastering some political basics.

"So," said Kagan after a subsequent session at which two leaders of organizations representing corporate America also talked about education as an investment, "we seem to be acknowledging that business is increasingly shaping the construction of education policy."

A student raised her hand and turned to the class. "Maybe we need to suspend our judgment of their motives?"

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