Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Spreading the Gospel—and the Freedoms

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

Educators often let me know they are passionately opposed to charter schools. “If freedom is so good for schools,” they ask, “then why not give it to all of them, not just charter schools?”

I used to say that you have to start someplace. Since unions and school boards would prevent the reins from being totally loosened, chartering is a step in the right direction. But that answer never works (as I found out again recently in an impromptu exchange after church, one that my wife said offset any serenity I might have gained from the weekly service).

Now, when the question is posed, I have a different answer. Yes, I can say, all schools should be given that kind of freedom. That’s the portfolio strategy, under which school districts make all schools autonomous, fund them equally, and hold all to the same standards for student outcomes.

In New York City, New Orleans, Denver, Cleveland, and other places, increasing numbers of regular public schools are gaining autonomy so that charter-like freedoms are becoming the norm. Portfolio districts use autonomy to strengthen schools serving the most disadvantaged students, and replace schools that can’t improve.

Making all schools charter-like sets off a lot of innovation and new problem-solving, while shining a light on some endemic problems of public education. Big-city public education has been isolated from invaluable sources of talent, by regulations and teacher contract provisions. People from cultural institutions, higher education, nonprofits, and business who could teach in, lead, and help schools have long been kept at arm’s length. The portfolio strategy invites such people into public education—though it takes a while to convince them the offer is genuine.

It also takes time to convince traditional district leaders that principals should be the ones to decide what teachers, technology, and professional development their schools need. But they quickly learn the value of empowering people who want to take responsibility, and understand that low-performing schools can’t improve under leaders who want to be told what to do.

The portfolio strategy truly makes the advantages of charter-like freedoms—and freedom’s twin, responsibility for results—available to all schools.

I am not sure all my interlocutors would be comforted to hear these things. Some, thinking they had posed an impossible challenge, would probably scramble to find another objection. But others might just get it: that the portfolio strategy turns chartering’s freedoms into a universal, not just a piecemeal, reform.

Next Sunday after church I’ll see how it goes.


Those of you who follow CRPE’s work know that we have long been a leading source of ideas about new approaches to public oversight of schools. One of our core beliefs regarding governance is that public schools can, and should, be given the freedom to solve problems and innovate while still being held accountable for equity and high performance. READ MORE...

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