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State of Change

After taking Professor Bridget Terry Long's courses, The Role of Policy in College Access and Success and The Economics of Colleges and Universities, a light bulb went off in Emily Cain's head. "By the end of the semester, my whole plan for what I wanted to do in higher education had changed," says the Maine State Representative, currently running for her fourth term in office.

Although Cain, Ed.M.'04, came to HGSE with plans to work in university administration, focusing on campus policies and development, she walked away with new views on public policy. Within weeks of leaving Appian Way, she was running for state representative district 19 in Maine, at the age of 24.

There are dozens of HGSE alums who work in state government - both as elected officials and otherwise -- across the country, as well as several who are running for office the first time in the 2010 election season. In these roles, alums find significant opportunities to bridge the gap between education and policy, as well as to make a difference in their communities.

As Colorado State Senator Mike Johnston, Ed.M.'00 will tell you, "There are not a lot of people [in office] who know both the practice and the policy."

Although Johnston had politics in his blood -- his father is a former mayor -- he came to the Ed School to focus on working as a principal. Following commencement, he worked as a teacher and principal, and cofounded two schools -- including the Mapleton Expeditionary School of the Arts, a redesigned urban high school that made Colorado history when 100 percent of seniors were admitted to 4-year colleges -- and the New Leaders for New Schools, a national nonprofit that recruits, prepares, and places outstanding urban school leaders.

But even while working in education, he stayed active in the world of policymaking, lending his experience and expertise as an education advisor to politicians like President Barack Obama. In 2009, he saw an opportunity to get involved full-time at the state level and forged ahead. "There was this tremendous opportunity for someone who knew education well as both a practitioner and policymaker," he says.

For many alums, the initial allure of the political world is, in essence, a desire to see changes in education. Kentucky House of Representatives District 62 candidate Ryan Quarles, Ed.M.'09, got his first taste of the changes one can make as an undergraduate, when he was appointed as a student representative on Kentucky's Council on Postsecondary Education, where he represented a quarter of a million people. "If you really want to make a tangible difference then the state level is the place to work," he says. "When I served as the lone student on the council, after two terms I could point at things that have my fingerprints on [them] that affect Kentucky."

After completing his law degree and returning to his home state, Quarles decided to run for office in the hope of making vast improvements, especially to the state education system which ranks last in the country. He cites big education issues with dropout rates and college completion, as well as a need to bridge the transition between K-12 and higher education. "Kentucky is not unique in that respect but we need a paradigm shift," he says. "In my graduating class, about a third of us attempted advanced education ranging from a traditional four-year college to diesel school to fix big rigs. We need to make the culture of Kentucky one that embraces higher education attainment."

Although national education policy steals most of the headlines, most policy and funding decisions occur at the state and local levels.

In his first year in office, Johnston has made changes and been dubbed as one of Time magazine's "Top 40 under 40" influential leaders in the country. He considers sponsoring and implementing the Great Teachers and Leaders bill, which will revamp the state's education and tenure system, at the top of his list of achievements. "I know we have a lot of work to do to get it right...and writing a bill is the first step in the process," Johnston says, sharing his hope to continue work on this issue moving forward.

Quarles also experienced firsthand as an undergraduate the differences that can be made at the state level. As a student representative on the Council on Postsecondary Education in Kentucky, Quarles helped developed policy to cap tuition increases in state public universities - where public institutions had raised tuition as much as 23 percent in one year. To date, the policy has set the stage as standard policy on public institutions and raising tuition.

"I'm glad I was part of this policy development that prevents wild tuition fluctuations and helps reign in annual costs to Kentucky families," Quarles says. These experiences on the council, eventually moved him to pursue a master's in higher education at the Ed School, where he says he gained a lot of exposure and perspective on what's happening in education across the country and world.

Many of the alums agreed that they would welcome more educators working at the state level.

"We need to encourage people to think about state government as an avenue," Johnston says, noting this doesn't necessarily always mean running for office but could include working for the governor or even keeping a day job and reaching out to policy groups, or attending senate hearings. As he points out, hearings are often filled with lobbyists rather than educators and practitioners, who really know what is happening inside schools.

Paula Dominguez, Ed.M.'94, Ed.D.'98, a senior education adviser and director of legislative research for the Rhode Island General Assembly, has worked behind the scenes for the past five years. "I never expected to be involved in a political environment," Dominguez shares. Although her position is nonpolitical, she provides counsel to elected officials and helps them think through the implications of decisions they are facing. "Each day can be its own surprise," she says. "It's a tremendous opportunity to weigh in on where improvements can be made."

Cain cautions students and alums not to get caught thinking education is only applicable directly in a school or college/university environment.

"One of the best ways for change is to have people who are experts and passionate about education at all levels to run for office because you get to sit at the table, influence, and really make a difference," Cain says. "I can't stress the importance enough to make a leap, take a chance, and run for office - the state, school, and university will be better off for having you at the table."

Are you an Ed School alum working in politics at the state level? If so, tell us your story below.