Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Getting from Here to There in Governance Reform

Andy Smarick, Ashley Jochim, and I have been exchanging posts on new roles for school districts and state education agencies. We agree government should set goals and hold providers accountable for performance but rely on independent parties to run schools and deliver services. But we are exploring differences about what kinds of government institutions are necessary. Yesterday on the Flypaper blog, Andy posted a thoughtful comment on earlier posts by Ashley Jochim and me. He argued that it is possible to transform SEAs but that districts are too hard to move from their traditional role as monopoly school providers, and should be ended and replaced. Here is my response:

For both the district and the SEA to become steerers, not rowers, two things need to be done: 1) build a new capacity, whether in the old organization or in a new one; and 2) sort the previous functions of the old organization, between those that no longer are needed, and those that are, though not necessarily in the same form.

It is easy to define the first, and much harder to deal with the second. And, as Andy suggests, it is also easier to dispose of the old SEA functions than the old district functions, though not easy in either case.

The old district is hard to dispose of because it is responsible for educating a lot of kids. Over time, as the district educates fewer kids while charters and other kinds of non-district run schools educate more, there is a strong chance that remaining district schools will get worse and worse. That is, unless the district makes some kind of transition so that it can do a reasonable job educating the kids it still has, even as many are opting for new schools. (You can see the harm done in places like Detroit and Cleveland, where the district preserved its old operating system, went through many rounds of LIFO, and ended up with a very small, extremely expensive, and overall weak teaching force and worsening schools. Happily Cleveland is now changing its operating system, to the likely benefit of schools and kids.) To me, there is an ethical imperative to think about how the district makes a transition that doesn't hurt kids. There is also a political/legal issue, as opponents can make the case that charters and other new schools are leaving out some kids and are responsible for harming them.

Another reason the old district is hard to dispose of is that it remains the provider of last resort: if nobody else offers a school for a given group of kids or in particular neighborhoods, the district has the responsibility to do so. To change this, some new entity—a new body overseeing all local school authorizers and providers—would have to take on that responsibility and have the power and control of funds to be able to fulfill it. And it would have to be accountable and pay the price if it didn't fulfill that responsibility.

Ashley and I have a new book coming out (A Democratic Constitution for Public Education, University of Chicago Press, forthcoming fall 2014) that shows how these district functions could both be reassigned. The key is a new kind of board with very strong authorizing powers and no authority to directly operate schools or employ teachers and principals. But even the movement to that would require time and a transition strategy. I don't see any way of just thinking about the final end-point and ignoring the steps—practical ones focusing on who serves students next year and the year after—needed to get there.

Portfolio is one transition strategy, that takes funds out of the central office and puts them into schools, develops a financially level playing field for all schools, and gives the district new options (new school creation, chartering) for fulfilling its responsibility as provider of last resort. At some point the district either becomes a very different kind of entity, steering only, or it is terminated and superseded by a new purpose-built entity. I'd agree with Andy that the latter is more likely.

My problem is, I can't think of any other transition strategy that doesn't amount to the same thing as portfolio, just with different words. Consider Neerav Kingsland's suggestion that 5% of all schools (the lowest-performing ones) be turned over to chartering every year (a suggestion I first made in 1992). That leaves a lot of kids in district-run schools for a long time. Isn't it necessary to think about improving the district's ability be the host of schools during that time? If the district adopts the principles of portfolio, some of its better schools should be ready to transfer to charter status early, accelerating the pace of transition from the old governance model to the new.

Tue, 03/31/2020

Success’s meticulously planned classes and sustained expectations for students’ work will come as a relief to many parents.

Sat, 03/28/2020

This week has been a crucial period of preparation in states from Washington to Florida, where distance learning is expected to begin in earnest by the end of March.

Fri, 03/20/2020

Three much-admired school networks in Indianapolis didn’t skip a beat in going virtual.