Three new briefs from CRPE shed light on the debate.
Reinventing Public Education Must Be About Problem Solving, Not Ideology
When Paul Hill wrote CRPE’s treatise, Reinventing Public Education, nearly 20 years ago, he was taking off on an idea developed by David Osborne and Ted Gaebler in Reinventing Government: the role of government should be to steer, not to row. It should get out of the business of central planning and instead unleash innovation, entrepreneurial problem solving, and a diverse set of options for consumers. Applying that logic to public education, Paul and his coauthors developed a radical vision of school boards no longer running schools directly but instead overseeing school performance contracts with autonomous organizations.
This was not a call for privatization; the authors were not saying government should go away. Rather, government would, in a way, have more control, because it would not get tangled up in minutia but would actively manage a diverse portfolio of options for families. It would solicit new school proposals, attract a strong pipeline of entrepreneurs and teachers who could run autonomous schools, act as a central hub for rich information about school performance, and aggressively replace failing schools.
When I first joined CRPE, I found this new idea tantalizing, but it seemed academic and, at the very least, far off. Back in 1994, most reformers were focused on getting states to tweak the bureaucratic structures they lived by, with the goal of more rigorous standards and accountability. There was another idea brewing at the time: 12 states had passed charter school laws, freeing schools from regulation in hope that quality and innovation would follow. We were enthusiastic about these reforms but saw both as incomplete for realizing the portfolio system Paul envisioned. Accountability without flexibility would only lead to frustration. Charter schools without strong standards and effective performance oversight would surely be uneven in quality.
In the years since, we have been gratified to see the CRPE idea taking hold in cities implementing what we call Portfolio Management. The highest-profile examples are New York City and New Orleans, yet in all, CRPE supports a network of over 40 cities committed to family choice, school independence, and performance accountability. Some are led by mayors, others by state-takeover institutions, and others by appointed and elected local boards. We also work in cities with a significant charter presence, but where no one agency (or combination of agencies) is acting as a citywide portfolio manager to ensure that all students have access to great schools and to help parents navigate their many options. These are complex initiatives, but their hallmark is that they are not purely market or government; instead, they occupy a middle ground that tries to use the best of both worlds to address the shortcomings of one another.
Now that our ideas aren't just a thought experiment, we are learning how promising—and challenging—they really are. We're trying to support cities as they do the hard work of remaking the role of government. In different places, the balance between market and government differs depending on local supply, government capacity, politics, etc. If there's one thing we have learned from these efforts, it's that although there are clearly some dimensions of this work that matter—including student-based funding and recruiting the best talent—it is fundamentally about managing problems and trying to find the best solutions, rather than about applying a pure "model" that will work everywhere.
We are now seeing proposals for urban school system reform that are similar to the portfolio idea, but place more faith in the market. Most recently, Bellwether Education’s Andy Smarick and New Schools for New Orleans’ Neerav Kingsland are pushing for urban school districts to be fully replaced by all-charter systems. All of our ideas promote the same overall end-state—good choices for all families, school autonomy balanced with performance accountability, and a system always open to new ideas. As much as we share their ideas in principle, our experience (and the experience of others) suggests that as they move from proposals to multiple real-world contexts, they too will confront the same challenges that the cities we work with face today: dealing with special education; attracting talent; ensuring quality seats in all neighborhoods; sustaining momentum in the face of community opposition and leadership changes. The reality is that the reform environment in most cities is messy, both politically and technically, and often can't conform to a sharp ideological principle like chartering all schools immediately.
Twenty years in, we at CRPE are glad to see how an idea that most people considered just an interesting thought experiment has evolved into the most exciting and promising urban education reform dynamic in America. But to continue to make progress, we all need to focus on the pragmatic problems cities are facing, not on our own ideologies. This week’s election results in several major cities are a stark reminder that reformers can’t rely on state or mayoral takeovers as a long-term solution. In most cities, the idea of ignoring districts and simply trying to collapse them through competition is a non-starter. That means making some schools a lot worse for some kids. It also deeply threatens parents of children who are currently in pretty good public schools.
We need to figure out solutions for cities where chartering is not effective or politically sustainable. We need to support implementation when the opportunities arise, not just under perfect circumstances. We need to push school districts that say they are divesting control, but aren’t really. We need to recognize that charters by themselves are not a guarantee of quality. We need to address the difficulties that parents face in cities with a lot of school choice, but no real governance, equity, or coordination. More than being “for” portfolio, CRPE is about working on these problems of equity and performance in a world where we don't think one solution will work for every student.
Although we will never solve these problems completely, we are now poised to learn more about them—and act on them—than ever before. Nearly 20 years into Reinventing, it is no longer crazy to talk about an education system where schools, not central offices, set the mission and agenda. But we have a long way to go before every child has access to a high-quality school. It will take evolving ideas, humility, and a lot of collective, gritty work to reach that goal.
Studies blaming long-standing problems in public education on charter schools make it harder to identify real solutions.