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11.29 Understanding the Debate on Charter Schools: A Nonpartisan Perspective

Tuesday, November 29th, 2016 | Allison Rizzolo

With the announcement of Betsy DeVos as President-Elect Trump’s Secretary of Education, charter schools look to be a central issue for the next administration. DeVos is an advocate for both charter schools and voucher programs, school choice approaches that have their share of ardent supporters and critics.

Charter schools are already a controversial issue. Given the tenor of public dialogue around the presidential transition, we’re likely to see even more division and emotion emerge around the topic. Passion and advocacy have their place in social issues. But with so much noise, it can become difficult for the public – including parents and voters – to understand an issue, weigh their own values and make a judgment on where they stand.

That’s where we come in. Together with the Spencer Foundation, we developed Charter Schools In Perspective a nonpartisan, non-ideological set of resources about charter schools and their place in American education. Our goal for this project is to help communities, educators, policymakers and journalists understand different approaches to educational policies and practices and the impacts those have on all kids. The resources have been designed and tested to foster better, more civil conversations.

The resources developed for Charter Schools In Perspective include:

  • Charter Schools In Perspective: A Guide to Research: A thorough and accessibly-written analysis that brings together and synthesizes current research on charter schools. Topics include student achievement, finance, governance, innovation and public opinion.
  • Ten Questions for Policymakers: A set of questions to help local officials think through decisions about charter schools in their jurisdictions.
  • Ten Questions for Journalists: A set of questions that provides local and national journalists with questions and ideas for stories about charter schools in their regions and nationwide.
  • Are Charter Schools a Good Way to Improve Education in Our Community? A discussion starter designed to help community members grapple with the trade-offs and benefits of introducing, expanding, limiting or closing charter schools. By presenting different perspectives on charter schools, this resource is designed to help communities hold civil, productive dialogue on how to improve their schools.

Charter schools made up nearly 7 percent of all U.S. public schools in 2013-14 and are quickly growing. Between 2007-08 and 2013-14, the number of charter schools increased by nearly 50 percent, and the schools are permitted in 43 states and the District of Columbia.

Debates over charter schools will continue, and both sides will make their cases, some well-founded and others not. A lot is riding on the decisions about expansion and closure – too much to not have an informed, civil dialogue.

We urge you to use the In Perspective resources and encourage open, honest dialogue at your dinner table, on your Facebook page or at a local school board meeting. Our research guide and discussion starter can help keep things in perspective and the conversation on a non-ideological, pragmatic track.

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11.22 Can the Public Have a Real Voice in American Politics?

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2016 | Alisson Rizzolo

Watch a video of the discussion here.

This year’s election surfaced many divisions and frustrations, provoking questions, conversations and think pieces about the public’s appropriate role in politics. Is too much democracy a bad thing? Can we address our differences and move forward? Will the tools we use currently to engage the public be adequate for the radical moment we are in?

We explored some of these questions during a policy breakfast last week in New York City, “Can the Public Have a Real Voice in American Politics?” Participants in the event, a panel discussion, included public engagement experts and practitioners Carolyne Abdullah, director of the Strengthening Democratic Capacity Team at Everyday Democracy, Brad Lander, member of the New York City Council, and Matt Leighninger, vice president of public engagement at Public Agenda. The panel was moderated by Geraldine Moriba of CNN.

All three panelists acknowledged the challenges that lie ahead for public engagement in government. Still, they remain optimistic about the future of democracy and the public’s voice in politics. “We’re in for some hard times, but I feel ok,” said Lander.

Beginning with Transparency and Attention to Detail

When elected officials make decisions that affect the public without seeming to consider the public’s needs and concerns, resentment and frustration build. Many Americans are feeling a lack of agency in the decisions that affect their daily lives, and this feeling was sharply pronounced in the recent election.

At the same time, as Lander acknowledged, democratic decision making is more appropriate for some decisions than it is for others. Moreover, sometimes the popular decision isn’t the right decision. How can leaders navigate these tensions?

The first step is transparency, said Leighninger. Ninety percent of the decisions that officials make concern issues that the public wouldn’t even want to weigh in on, he said. The problem is that the public “doesn’t even know what the list is.” If the public doesn’t know what decisions their officials face, how can they assess whether they need or want to have a voice in those decisions?

The panelists agreed: We need robust public engagement on some decisions and expert decision making on others. But elected officials need to be transparent about the decisions they face and which may not necessitate public input. They need to provide space for meaningful public engagement on the decisions that warrant it, using processes that work well. Moreover, they must also communicate better about expert-level decisions, in a way that enables the public to absorb the information.

Lander acknowledged this may be difficult in practice, especially in light of the current public mood. “It’s easier to mobilize resentment and fear than to do the long, slow work of engagement,” he said.

Abdullah pointed out that details matter when it comes to public engagement. Officials may overlook the barriers to participation they may erect unknowingly. Who is the messenger, Abdullah asked? What language is used on the invitation? Officials also ought to be aware of time and schedule constraints their constituents may face. People care about many public issues, Abdullah said, but the barriers enforced by inattention to detail mean they can’t contribute.

Local Models that Show Promise

Communities around the country are experimenting with ways to more meaningfully and productively engage area residents in governance. One example of these innovations is participatory budgeting, or PB, which Lander has used in his district. (In the interest of full disclosure, Public Agenda serves as an independent evaluator of PB across the US and Canada.)

PB and other innovative public engagement models show promise in their communities. “Participatory budgeting works in red and blue communities in New York City,” said Lander. “When they’re working, these tools for democratic engagement do mobilize our better angels…People like to work together to solve problems.”

Leighninger noted PB has had positive outcomes in Brazil, where it started. He pointed to the ways that PB not only provides residents with a sense of agency, it also provides a means for residents to build social networks. Through these networks, people are able to find job connections, childcare and other supports.

At the same time, Lander admitted that such tools feel “radically inadequate” for the moment we’re in. Can we grow PB up to work more broadly? Public engagement tools require a lot of resources to do them well, yet constituents like the opportunity for authentic engagement. Our country already spends $5 billion annually on unproductive engagement processes, said Leighninger. What can we do to redirect those resources from activities that don’t really work?

What the Public Can Do Now

Meaningful and sustainable forms of public engagement in politics and governance will require patience, resources and time. Yet many Americans are feeling a need to act immediately. What can the public do in the short term?

Relationships and dialogue will be necessary to build bridges for progress, Abdullah noted, calling productive conversation between people with different perspectives a learning opportunity. This is an action that average citizens can take, she said.

She referred back to an experience she had in a community that had experienced a police shooting. Following the shooting, passions were high among both activists and police officers. A space was created for these two groups to come together for a productive conversation. At the end of the process, each group learned something about the other – about how they each think, about their life experiences. And these connections stuck. The community experiences a much tighter relationship between police and residents, including activists.

“There is potential for change, but we need to provide space for authentic conversation,” Abdullah said.

During this wide-ranging discussion, panelists also explored topics including voting, money in politics, engagement techniques for rural communities and what to do about the perceived marginalization of the white working class. We’ll post a video of the full discussion shortly. If you are interested in supporting or attending future policy breakfasts, contact Chandler at


11.18 Engaging Ideas - 11/18

Friday, November 18th, 2016 | Public Agenda

Every week we curate stories and reports on complex issues. This week: What dialogue does to build critical thinking and empathy, and why it matters right now. Is it time to restructure the Education Department? A story of one group addressing employer and workforce needs in education. American’s want Trump to focus on health care first.


Room for Debate: Should the Electoral College Be Abolished? (The New York Times)
Hillary Clinton’s growing lead over Donald J. Trump is now over 1 million votes, making this the second time a president has been elected without a popular majority since 2000. That year, Akhil Reed Amar wrote in an op-ed for The New York Times that the Electoral College should be abolished, and Charles Fried disagreed. Here they are again.

Political Segregation Is Growing and 'We're Living With the Consequences' (Governing)
Author Bill Bishop, who has spent years studying America's urban-rural divide, discusses what it means for politics and progress.

Community Engagement

How Cross-Cultural Dialogue Builds Critical Thinking and Empathy (KQED)
Often adolescents hold strong opinions, but they don’t always know where and how they came to those beliefs. When a teacher pushes them to think critically about why they feel the way they do, it’s easy for students to ignore them. But, when video conferencing with a teenager from another country who genuinely wants to know the answer, students often respond more thoughtfully.

The Source: Online Platform Works To Boost Civic Engagement In San Antonio (Texas Public Radio)
The city is increasingly utilizing the digital sphere for official meetings and to gather feedback for long-term planning, and a new participatory platform is encouraging San Antonio residents to submit ideas for ways to improve the city. Ideas for CoSA is a crowd-sourced virtual suggestion box for citizens of San Antonio to voice their opinions. Once submitted, anyone can vote or comment on an idea. Top-ranked ideas on the site are regularly emailed to all City Council members. Community members can stay up-to-date by subscribing for notifications about new submissions. In addition to the website, Ideas for CoSA also uses a Facebook group to promote the discussion of topics "directly relevant to civic engagement in San Antonio."

What We Know Post-Election: Dialogue & Deliberation is More Critical than Ever (NCDD)
There are many different needs that our country and our communities have right now, but we see a few key needs that stand out as ones that are especially suited for D&D solutions: bridging long-standing divides, processing hopes and fears together, encouraging and maintaining civility in our conversations, and humanizing groups who have become “the other.”

K-12 Education

Report: Putting Democracy Back into Public Education (The Century Foundation)
To refocus civic education on democratic ideals in American public schools, changes should be made to both the explicit and implicit curriculum. Beyond learning about the nation’s Founders and the Constitution, our schools should model democratic values for students by encouraging community members to actively engage in education decisions and inviting teachers to participate in a democratic workplace.

Teacher and Principal School Report (Scholastic)
Nearly all educators surveyed by Scholastic for a new research project believe that "equity in education for all children should be a national priority."

Is It Time to Restructure the Education Department? (EdWeek)
The history of the U.S. Department of Education holds lessons for shaking up the education status quo, writes Gary Beach.

Professional Learning Communities Aren't Just for Teachers (EdWeek)
The superintendent's job can be isolating; online communities can make it less so, write Mark Edwards and Mort Sherman.

Higher Education & Workforce Development

Report: Free Community College: An Approach to Increase Adult Student Success in Postsecondary Education (Education Commission of the States)
To date, 23 states have considered 47 pieces of legislation related to free college. Zero states will realistically reach attainment imperatives without the participation of adult students in higher education.

How We're Convening Employers to Expand Opportunity and Strengthen the Workforce (Forbes)
Recently, Jobs for the Future (JFF) worked with the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation and the American Hotel and Lodging Association Educational Institute (AHLEI) to promote ways to ensure career and wage growth for the current 15.5 million hospitality employees and for those who will fill the close to 12 million emerging jobs. Companies like Hilton and TGI Fridays provided leadership for expanding access to registered apprenticeship, with support from the U.S. Department of Labor.

Bringing universities to the students (Community College Daily)
Jasminy Queiroz, 23, a graduate of Montgomery College (MC) in Maryland, is able to save lots of money while pursuing a bachelor’s degree close to her home at the Universities of Shady Grove (USG), a unique regional higher education center with outposts operated by nine state universities. A student in the University of Maryland’s (UM) Robert H. Smith School of Business, Queiroz appreciates the personalized approach at USG. Most of her classes have 15 or 20 students, a far cry from the 80 or 100 packed into classes at UM’s main campus in College Park. More than three-quarters of the 4,000 students at USG are MC transfers. USG was created as a “2+2 model,” with the goal of ensuring MC graduates can complete a bachelor’s degree that will prepare them for in-demand jobs with local employers.

Health Care

Americans Want Trump To Focus On Healthcare First: Poll (Reuters)
Healthcare is the top issue Americans want Donald Trump to address during his first 100 days in the White House, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Thursday, an apparent rebuke of outgoing President Barack Obama's signature reform, Obamacare. Some 21 percent of Americans want Trump to focus on the healthcare system when he enters the White House on Jan. 20, according to the Nov. 9-14 poll, conducted in the week after the Republican won the U.S. presidential election.

The One Thing Missing From The Debate Over Obamacare, According To A Top Doctor (Wonkblog)
President-elect Donald Trump's promise to repeal the Affordable Care Act while preserving some key elements has triggered rampant speculation about the future of American health care — and plunged millions of patients who benefit from the law into deep uncertainty about the future of their coverage. Little is known about the replacement plan that will ultimately emerge. But one voice angling to shape future policy is the leader of the Mayo Clinic, neurologist John Noseworthy. The issue he thinks has been strangely missing from the years-long debate over malfunctioning websites, politics and soaring premiums is this: the patient's health.

Politics Aside, We Know How to Fix Obamacare (The Upshot)
There’s one significant problem with all these ideas, of course: They’d need to pass the Republican Congress and be signed into law by Mr. Trump. Though the G.O.P. has endorsed some of the ideas before — for Medicare — it’s a safe bet they won’t do so for the Affordable Care Act.

Government Spending and County Health Rankings (Health Affairs)
Analyzing government spending at the local level, J. Mac McCullough and Jonathon Leider find positive associations between certain types of social spending and County Health Rankings. Expenditures positively associated with rankings include: community health care and public health, public hospitals, fire protection, K–12 education, corrections, libraries, and housing and community development.

What the Trump Administration Needs to Do About Health Care (Harvard Business Review)
The broad principles of the path forward for the new administration are clear. In our article “Health Care Needs Real Competition,” from the upcoming December 2016 issue of Harvard Business Review, we describe five catalysts that can accelerate progress toward a competition-driven, value-oriented health care marketplace, one that serves the needs of patients, controls costs, and rewards providers who can innovate and execute.


11.17 What Do We Know About Trump's Plan for Higher Ed?

Thursday, November 17th, 2016 | Erin Knepler

With Donald Trump's win last week, I found myself uncertain about what the results of the presidential election mean for higher education. I share this feeling with many of my higher education peers. The uncertainty is not due to a lack of curiosity. Rather, the president-elect hasn’t really talked in detail about his higher education plans. In fact, the first time he referenced the issue on the campaign trail was during a rally in Columbus, Ohio on October 13, 2016, less than a month before the election.

As he now prepares for the presidency, President-Elect Trump's higher education plans and policy initiatives need to be fleshed out. While details remain hazy, he’s given a few indications on his transition website and during rallies regarding what he’d pursue.

Specifically, Trump has indicated on his transition website he would like to work towards lifting or softening regulations from the U.S. Department of Education that inhibit innovation. He also suggested that he and his administration will integrate technology enriched delivery models in an effort to make higher education options more affordable and accessible for students. And during the October rally, he’s indicated support for income-based student loan repayments.

While these approaches, on face-value, sound positive and could potentially receive bipartisan support, no additional details are provided on his transition website. It’s hard to further speculate on what a well thought-out, operationalized plan would look like. And it's therefore hard to assess the merit of these proposals.

Still, given our deep background in higher education, I wanted to explore what these paths mean for the students, faculty, administrators and taxpayers they would affect.

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11.15 A New Look for Public Agenda

Tuesday, November 15th, 2016 | Allison Rizzolo

Welcome to Public Agenda's new website! We invite you to take some time to explore, and we hope you find the content engaging and informative.

Now more than ever, it is critical for us to work toward a democracy that answers to the needs and concerns of all Americans.

As a communications hub for our work, we hope our new website will advance our goals by elevating a diversity of voices, enabling common ground, improving dialogue and collaboration, and ultimately contributing to progress on critical issues.

As a resource for those helping to further our mission, we also hope our new site will help visitors understand our goals and strategies, provide them with tools and knowledge and encourage them to learn more about the issues central to our democracy.

The website is designed to meet a few objectives:

  • We seek to tell the story of our work and convey our impacts on the issues that hold democracy together, including education, health care, economic opportunity and governance. We work on a lot of different issues, and we use a lot of different tools – opinion research, dialogue and facilitation, leadership training and others. We aim to help you better understand what we're ultimately striving toward: a democracy that works for everyone.
  • We know many of you come to our site to find resources you use in your own work, including opinion data and discussion guides. Our new site makes those resources even more accessible while also allowing you to discover new resources you may not have been aware of.
  • If you're visiting our site, you likely care about the same issues we do. Our new site makes it easier for you to find ways to take action and help fuel progress on our nation's critical issues.

This will be a dynamic site, with new reports, resources, blog posts, comments and news posted regularly. We hope you will visit again.

It is also a responsive design, meaning you can view it just as easily on your phone or tablet as on a laptop or desktop.

Thank you for your interest in Public Agenda!


11.11 Engaging Ideas - 11/11

Friday, November 11th, 2016 | Public Agenda

Every week we curate stories and reports on complex issues. This week: Looking forward towards a democracy that works for everyone. Horserace polling, the tempting treat that missed the mark. How to talk politics with your enemy, plus what the election means for health care, K12 and higher education policies.


Toward a Democracy that Works for Everyone (On the Agenda)
Public Agenda President Will Friedman comments on the 2016 election and our work moving forward: We stand more committed than ever to doing our part to build a democracy that works for everyone.

Here’s how the next president can start healing America. (Huffington Post)
Dan Glickman, Former Congressman and Secretary of Agriculture and a Senior Fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Institute, writes: The public should not tolerate four more years of gridlock, no matter who wins on November 8. So what should the next White House administration and the 115th Congress do to rebuild its standing in the eyes of the American people? First, the next president should create a cabinet with a diversity of political views to represent both the left, right and middle.

Public Opinion/ Polling

Update: Horse Race Polling: Resist the Sweet Treat (Medium)
PA alumna Amber Ott writes: In the aftermath of yesterday's election, we are reminded what happens when the horse race? - even when scrutinized using sophisticated technology, big data and modeling? - overshadows everything else. As we wrote in February, polls are not designed to be predictive. They capture a moment in time, and things can happen between a survey and election day, including a shift in the electorate itself. Uncovering the values that underlie candidate preference is what makes public opinion research meaningful. Effective campaigns use this information to craft coherent strategies. Today, many wish we better understood the forces that propelled Mr. Trump to victory. Going forward, let’s dedicate ourselves not just to understanding these forces but also communicating the right and wrong ways to use public opinion research.

7 experts try to explain how the polls missed Donald Trump’s victory (Vox)
Trump drew many new believers into the political process for the first time; the likely voter screens appear to have assumed that they would not actually show up to vote on Tuesday. As a result, polls with strong likely voter screens may have underestimated his strength. Trump’s victory was missed by basically everybody in the polling industry. And that sets up a question: How did the pollsters so badly whiff on an election with such high stakes? The dust is still settling, but I talked to seven experts in political science and polling for their responses. Here’s what I learned.

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11.10 Toward a Democracy that Works for Everyone

Thursday, November 10th, 2016 | WILL FRIEDMAN, PH.D.

Photo: Jnn13 | Wikipedia

Reflecting on this confusing and tumultuous election season, at least one thing has become clear: Millions of Americans feel unheard, unseen and disregarded. They do not trust traditional politics to represent them, and they want a greater say in the decisions that affect their lives.

The election has shown how critically important it is to bridge the divides among leaders and the public, to make sure that people have a voice and that their voices are heard, to foster better public conversations that inform wiser public decisions, to create enough common ground and collaboration that we make progress on our most critical problems.

These tasks are the work of Public Agenda, along with our partners, allies and supporters. We stand more committed than ever to doing our part to build a democracy that works for everyone.


11.08 Get Ready for Messy Democracy: Public Officials on Participatory Budgeting

Tuesday, November 8th, 2016 | Allison Rizzolo

Whatever the outcome of today, it's been clear for a while that the public is seeking a greater voice in the decisions that affect them, both locally and nationally. And it's not just the public. Elected officials are frustrated with the state of public engagement as well, as we saw firsthand in a 2012 project with California officials.

As such, many public officials are experimenting with new ways to connect with their constituents and involve them in decision making. One of the most promising new processes is participatory budgeting, or PB, which enables residents to directly decide how to spend public money.

PB started in Brazil and came to the United States in 2009, when one ward in Chicago used the process. In 2015-2016, 47 cities or city council districts in the U.S. and Canada used PB. Recent numbers show that in 2014-15 alone, over 70,000 people voted on how to spend $43 million through PB.

We were curious to see what elected officials had to say about PB, so we asked, in a series of 43 confidential interviews with elected officials across the country, 28 of whom had used PB and 15 who had not.

We wanted to know: What motivated them to try it? Did it help improve their relationship with constituents? What were the other benefits and challenges they encountered? Last week, we released the results of these in the report, "Let the People Decide: Elected Officials on Participatory Budgeting."

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11.04 Engaging Ideas - 11/4

Friday, November 4th, 2016 | Public Agenda

Every week we curate stories and reports on complex issues. This week: Articles on the effect scandals have on polling and what connecting research and policy can do to reduce inequality. A voter’s guide to the Nov. 8th education policy stakes. What 12 state schools are cutting, or creating, to ease cost burden on students. A look at an initiative on California’s ballot that may have important implications for drug pricing and policy nationwide.


Three charts make painfully simple how American politics became so messed up (Wonkblog)
With less than a week to go until the election, the country has descended into full partisan battle mode.

The Case Against Democracy (The New Yorker)
Caleb Crain writes: If most voters are uninformed, who should make decisions about the public’s welfare?

Accelerating “What Works” (Stanford Social Innovation Review)
There is an urgent need to expand the infrastructure for results-based policymaking at all levels of the US government.

Mass media has utterly failed to convey the policy stakes in the election (Vox)
Millions of Americans would love some or all of these changes, and millions of others would hate them. But most of all, the vast majority of Americans would simply be confused. Someone who’d been following the election moderately closely — scanning headlines, watching cable news, and tuning in to debates — would simply have no idea that this sweeping shift in American public policy is in the offing if Trump wins. Nor would they have any real sense of what the more modest shift in public policy that would emerge from a Clinton win would look like. Beneath the din of email coverage and the mountains of clichés about populism, the mass-market media has simply failed to convey what’s actually at stake in the election.

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11.03 The State of Public Voice, Post-Election

Thursday, November 3rd, 2016 | Public Agenda

Many in the United States have felt for some time that our elected officials don't put the public's concerns first. Now, years of diminishing trust in government and a growing divide between elites and the public have culminated in 2016: a growing, rarely productive populism and a divisive election season here in the United States.

While this year has been tumultuous and confusing, it also represents a crossroads. Can we harness the growing populism and cultivate a more meaningful, productive public conversation and a more engaged, informed public?

We'll be exploring this and other questions during our upcoming policy breakfast, Can the Public Have a Real Voice in American Politics?

The event takes place the morning of November 17th, after the election. We'll know who our next president will be. But we'll have a lot more questions to explore.

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