Elected Leaders Can Play Small Ball or Make an Impact

It takes courage to run for political office these days and talent (or at least luck) to get elected.

Because of that I don’t like having to give a negative critique of the performance of the Republican and conservative elected folks who are honest and genuinely seek to make a positive difference. I’ve worked for or with members of Congress and state legislators. I’ve worked for or with candidates for Congress and the state legislature. I’ve advised candidates for offices from the local level on up to statewide. I’ve gotten to know well the many types of individuals who put themselves and their families into the political fray. My admiration of their willingness to do so is as high as anyone’s.

I argue that if you want to get serious about effectively reaching the uninformed, the dynamics of a political campaign are the last places to look. Yes, they can be improved, but much of that improvement will only follow after improvements are made outside of campaign politics. (The discussion of the quality of most political campaigns these days could is a big topic for another day. Most, obviously, aren’t what they can be.)

A few years ago I had the pleasure of meeting with a group of reform-minded school board members on a number of occasions. It was as impressive a batch of people as you could hope to see serving at that all-important level of government. These men and women not only understood what was wrong with teaching methods and curriculum, they also knew the guts of the corruption when it comes to public school district spending and teacher and administrator contracts.

Every one of this group of reformers had a great mind and a great resumé. They were successes in business and other fields. They knew what was wrong and how much work it was going to take to fix the schools. They had the fortitude to take on their fellow board members and the teacher’s unions and knew how to handle the local press. When they were quoted they were articulate and informative.

There was only one big problem. While each was having an impact in his local district, they limited themselves to what can only be called small ball.

This was a group of individuals who could have made a meteor-like impact on the entire Chicago metro area by informing their fellow citizens about the serious issues rife within almost every Illinois school district.  Every time I attended their gatherings, the discussions were packed with important revelations and devastating anecdotes about the kind of foolishness that is common in government, and can be disastrous when manifested in the bloated and ineffective public school system.  But after a while I stopped attending the gatherings because I already got it — the schools are mess.

Thirty years after the landmark report, “A Nation at Risk,” the education system is worse than ever. Thirty years of school reform efforts have produced spotty results. Yes, school choice is on the advance, but its pace is far slower than it should be. I’d argue small-ball thinking is at fault.

Clearly this group of reform-minded school board members would have had to expend a good deal of extra energy in the effort to inform more people living outside their district, and I realize I was asking a lot of them to attempt to do so. What makes their decision to stay local so costly is that they could have inspired countless others to get into the fight. Yes, they would have suffered as all trailblazers do, but their efforts would have been rewarded manyfold in increased understanding and activism on the part of the public. It was a terrible lost opportunity.

Up next: Public opinion leaders v. the hired help.

(First published October 2013)