Lanae Erickson Hatalsky is vice president for the social policy and politics program at Third Way, a think tank in Washington, D.C. Lanae’s job is to propose centrist solutions to the often heated debates that broil within education—certainly not for the faint of heart.
She is the longest-running Third Way staffer, except for its four founders, who formed the organization after John Kerry’s defeat in 2004 believing that Democrats needed to be a bigger-tent party.
Coffee or tea? What kind do you like?
I’m a big tea drinker. I have a large iced green tea sitting in front of me right now for our coffee break. I gave up coffee about five years ago because I’m very Type A and it made me so jittery that I was crawling under my desk during stressful times and I thought that wasn’t helpful to getting my work done. I’m much more chill now that I’ve moved over to Moroccan mint tea as opposed to 17 cups of coffee and seven Diet Cokes.
You have a background as a lawyer helping victims of torture. How did you make the transition to the think-tank world?
I knew I wanted to be a do-gooder lawyer, but not anything else about what I wanted to do. I started at an international human rights organization and found that it was very hard for me to feel like I was having any impact, so then I decided to represent people in criminal cases because I felt I could really have an impact on their lives. And then I felt like I wasn’t changing the thing that was going to make a difference enough.
I ended up in domestic policy as kind of a midplace between those two things. It’s big enough to feel like I’m doing something, but small enough to think that in my lifetime I may be able to have an impact on it.
Do you think there’s a strain of progressive orthodoxy that runs through education today?
I worked on what I thought before were the most divisive issues—like abortion and immigration and guns—but having come to education about three years ago, I found just as much division and orthodoxy as there is in any of those culture issues.
What is particularly divisive about it? What do you find counterproductive?
Especially on the Democratic side within education, there is a tribal mentality. Everyone’s trying to figure out which group do you belong to—are you a reformer or are you a union supporter and nary the two shall meet.
They assume if they know one thing about your viewpoint, they know everything about you.
There’s a lot of people who cast folks from the other tribe as bad people who have bad motives and don’t care about kids. I don’t believe that to be true.
What could progressives do better?
We should not demonize people who might disagree with us. Too frequently we say if someone is for charter schools, that means that they’re for privatizing all education and handing it over to corporations, and if people support unions, they don’t care about kids and only care about making teachers’ jobs easier.
Neither of those things are true. We would get a lot further if we started with the belief that everybody’s at least trying to get to the right place and then had a conversation about the nuances of getting there.
Is there a certain phrase or stance that causes you to roll your eyes or scream every time you hear it?
I hate the phrase “teacher wars.” I think that’s such an oversimplification. It doesn’t describe any of the complicated policy issues that go underneath it.
We’ve been talking a lot about the idea of modernizing the teaching profession and that has been a real point of contention with some folks because they say, “We don’t need to change it. We just need to be nicer to teachers. We need to reward teachers more and pay them more.” That reflexive defense of the status quo is just as unhelpful as people who say, “Let’s throw the whole system out and start over.”
How do you feel about the progress of D.C. Public Schools?
Kaya Henderson is the example of what we should hope to see from Democrats in the future. She managed to maintain the same policies that needed to be done and furthered the change that needed to be made while speaking more respectfully to the people who are involved.
They haven’t changed the teacher evaluation and the compensation policies—the things that got people’s backs up in the first place.
Who do you think are the vanguard voices in education?
A lot of the wisdom in this debate is coming from younger people.
They’re not stuck in that 1990s, moderate-versus-liberal fight.
Cory Booker’s speaking about this issue is very prescient and he realizes we gotta make changes, but he very much supports the changes coming from folks who will be impacted by them.
Who’s your dream vice presidential candidate?
I already gave Cory Booker love, so that’s an obvious one.
My less obvious answer is Xavier Becerra (of California), who I think is a very smart legislator, knows how to get things done, knows how to work with lots of different people and would be a great accent to Hillary Clinton’s experience in Washington.