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Welcome to Washington's Food Fight, Mr. Smith

foodfightJust as Jimmy Stewart’s Jefferson Smith did upon his cinematic arrival in Washington, this year’s Capitol newbies will encounter the three major political “food” groups – The Know-It Alls, The Pessimists and The Relativists.  If they are lucky, or smart, or just plain good, they may find themselves associating with a lesser known but more effective commodity – the more principled drivers of change, The Reformers.

Unlike the Reformers, the Know-It-Alls are the Washington establishment, which on the whole believe that everything being done now in the federal government is as it should be, is being done for a reason and must simply be sustained and grown – not changed one bit. It’s good, it’s comfortable and it all seems to work for them. Don’t worry about effectiveness or review. That’s for the pessimists.

The Pessimists don’t really believe things are working well, but they require hard, fast proof before they accept anything new.  They complain that things aren’t funded enough and that the government needs more regulation, not less (indeed, they are pessimists and believe the people cannot really govern themselves).  They believe that our rights have been taken away by various agencies and public bodies. The Pessimists cast a dark cloud over anything that may suggest more choice and freedom – particularly in education.  How can you trust them, afterall?

The Relativists are on everybody’s side.  There is no deal too compromising for them.  You have your opinion, I have mine. They are all equal. There’s really no right or wrong (except in the opposite political party).  If you really believe in a cause, the relativists are at the ready with their idea of reality – that you simply can’t win at all so don’t even try. Relativists tell reformers to

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Welcome to Washington, Mr. Smith

smith-taylorAt one point in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the legendary film by Frank Capra, the lead character (played by Jimmy Stewart) arrives as a new Senator from Illinois and finds himself sitting with his senior peer and the state’s political bosses. They tell him how Washington works, that for the good of his career he must get in line and feed the machine. His political mentor tries to soften the blow by saying,

“You’ve got to face facts, Jeff. I’ve served our state well, haven’t I? We have the lowest unemployment and the highest federal grants. But, well, I’ve had to compromise, had to play ball. You can’t count on people voting, half the time they don’t vote anyway. That’s how states and empires have been built since time began. Don’t you understand? Well, Jeff, you can take my word for it, that’s how things are … Now, when the (bill) comes up in the Senate tomorrow you stay away from it. Don’t say a word. Great powers are behind it, and they’ll destroy you before you can even get started.”

Translation: Vote like we tell you, not how you think you should.

This, not the famous filibuster scene, is actually my favorite. It’s not made-up Hollywood stuff. It really happens this way, amidst a long cast of characters that descend on the new Member of Congress. And every two years, when a new Congress is created from the hundreds of districts our leaders have sprinkled throughout the land to represent us, it’s our job to remind them why we sent them there.

(Tune in tomorrow for Part 2 – Welcome to Washington’s Food Fight, Mr. Smith)

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Letter to Arne Duncan, Next Secretary of Education

duncanYou’ve been called a “great guy” by democrats who think you will help them grow school reform.  You’ve “made a lot of progress,” say university types.  You’re the “compromise candidate,” because the unions have endorsed you.

Now comes the hard part.

Frankly, you’re one of the few national education leaders I do not know, which gives me some rare objectivity in the matter. That, and the fact that my organization has no horse in the race, no member group to protect, no current ties to you at all.

So, let me offer some fresh advice about what you can expect – and what might take you by surprise.

1) Everyone will want to claim you as his own.  Allowing them to do so will compromise your efforts.

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