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Hopeful signs of shifting ground

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Esther Cepeda
June 20, 2011
— When the world seems to be shifting under your feet, sometimes it’s hard to imagine that it’ll settle in a good way. But two things happened last week that made me wonder whether I’m seeing some light at the end of the tunnel of gridlock that the nation has been crawling through.

Nevada replaced its old teacher tenure system with one that evaluates and rewards teacher performance and student achievement, makes it easier to remove ineffective teachers from classrooms, and eliminates the use of seniority to determine who gets dismissed during layoffs.


Based on this winter’s avalanche of nationwide protests against proposed changes to collective bargaining agreements—remember Wisconsin school teachers calling Gov. Scott Walker “Hitler” during heated rallies at the state Capitol?—you’d have thought any changes to our states’ education systems could be solved only through street demonstrations.


Yet in the months that followed the Wisconsin spectacle, the once-unthinkable occurred again and again. For instance, in Illinois a coalition of reformers, union representatives and state legislators held secret, amicable talks for months and came up with an unbelievable reform compromises similar to Nevada’s.


Tennessee, Indiana and Florida recently passed comparable groundbreaking educational changes, and serious negotiations on similar “when pigs fly” reforms are in the works in states across the country.


And, in a different venue, came more “won’t happen in a million years” news: AARP announced Friday it is no longer staunchly opposed to moderate Social Security benefit cuts. According to The Wall Street Journal, John Rother, the uber-influential lobby’s policy chief, had been battling internally to get the organization to acknowledge that the winds of change are blowing.


Rother was quoted as saying, “The ship was sailing. I wanted to be at the wheel when that happens.”


Though some reacted to the change in strategy as akin to an act of treason, the move is not an abandonment of core principles—the American Association of Retired Persons hasn’t stopped working to ensure people older than 50 a high quality of life—but a nod to the new normal.


People live almost 20 years longer today than they did when President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Social Security program into law in the mid-1930s as part of the New Deal, and the trust fund is estimated to run out in 2036. Something has to change, and that change could potentially start with the jaw-dropping acknowledgement Rother just made.


In the financial and emotional aftermath of the Great Recession—it’s hard to believe it technically ended two years ago this month—battle lines have been drawn, enemies have been named, and vows to never relent have been uttered.


But more and more, our long-grinding hardships are creating leaders who don’t see every compromise as an unconditional surrender, but as an opportunity to have a stronger hand in whatever comes next. They’ve realized that giving a little will help us all finally reach whatever’s at the other end of this long, dark tunnel.


Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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