Getting Beyond the Book Wars

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Getting Beyond the Book Wars

Third in a CRPE Blog Series on Education Governance as a Civic Enterprise

I’m often asked how CRPE’s portfolio model differs from the vision put forth in my friend Andy Smarick’s book, The Urban School System of the Future. My first response is, “Not all that much.” Andy’s proposed solution to urban school system dysfunction is one that is nearly identical to the thesis in my colleague Paul Hill’s book Reinventing Public Education and CRPE’s founding ideal nearly 20 years ago:

  • All public schools should operate like charter schools, with autonomy over their educational programs, funding, and staffing.
  • They should be held accountable primarily for results, not inputs, via a performance contract.
  • Families should have access to a broad range of high-quality public school options rather than being assigned to one school.

Andy believes, though, that in the urban school system of the future, state charter authorizers, rather than publicly elected school boards, should oversee all city schools—which is the case now throughout most of New Orleans. If he had his druthers, no school district would have the right to charter.

While I’m a great fan of the transformation of the New Orleans school system, the idea that an all-charter system is the right solution for every big city strikes me as shortsighted. First off, in many cities, charter school authorizers don’t have a good track record. In Cleveland, for instance, the charter sector is at best mediocre, whereas the Cleveland school district, under the leadership of Superintendent Eric Gordon, has a strong plan for transitioning to a portfolio of high-performing autonomous schools, some charter, some district-run. In other cities, like Indianapolis and San Antonio, the charter sector offers a more plausible solution than the district, under the leadership of the city and with help from community-based incubators. In other cities, neither the district not the current charter authorizers are particularly effective governing agencies, so there needs to be a new or different solution.

Second, I worry that some of the crazy-quilt governance arrangements underway in majority-choice urban districts will not deal sufficiently with questions of equity and civic coherence. Are there enough good schools in the city to meet all families’ needs? Can families with special needs find appropriate placements without too much confusion and angst? Are there effective ways to engage city and community-based services to support the schools? Should there be neighborhood schools? These questions are much easier to answer if there is some system, or portfolio, of schools, not a dozen different uncoordinated sets of schools, as is happening in some cities with multiple charter authorizers.

Finally, even in cities where a recovery school district or some other “takeover” solution is put in place, as in New Orleans, the long-term governance question is still not settled. Eventually, citizens will want to have some local control over their school system. Even New Orleans’ much-herald RSD will be a school district again, if it eventually returns to a local board, as is likely.

It’s not the label that matters. It’s the effectiveness of the oversight.

There is tough work ahead to get our cities to the points that Hill and Smarick describe. Our bottom line is that each city is going to have a different path to functional portfolio governance, but the problems they will encounter are all the same. They need to figure out how to create a strong supply of new schools; how to close schools without creating too much political backlash; and how to create rational and equitable enrollment, information, special education, and funding systems. In some cases, the most plausible solution for getting more good schools quickly is a fundamental district transformation. In others, it is a charter play. What matters is not the name of the institution or institutions, but whether government agencies are acting as strong stewards of high-quality public school options.

Thu, 04/24/2014

Ashley Jochim takes a critical look at a new proposal to shrink state education agencies.

Thu, 04/17/2014

Betheny Gross recalls CRPE's 2010 book on charter schools serving students with special needs and how it highlighted not just shortcomings, but innovative solutions as well.

Wed, 04/09/2014

Sarah Yatsko recalls CRPE's 2011 comprehensive charter school study, and what's changed—and hasn't changed—since its release.

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