Rewriting School Rules

Rewriting School Rules

by David Osborne

Imagine, for a moment, a public education system in which every school is a charter school.

Radical? You bet. Nonetheless, that’s one of two approaches that the National Commission on Governing America’s Schools will recommend in a report to be released tomorrow. I served on the study group, which was created last year by the influential Education Commission of the States. And the charter school option is the one I’ve come to believe is best.

No longer would school districts employ a small army of principals, administrators, teachers and custodians. No longer would school boards control the budgets, personnel and curriculums of every school in the system. Instead, in this brave new world, nonprofit organizations, universities, groups of teachers and even for-profit firms would vie for charters (i.e., performance contracts) to run public schools.

The charter schools themselves would be responsible for their own hiring, firing, promotions, pay, budgets, curriculums, and length of school day and year, within the limits set by state law and district policy. Parents would choose the schools they thought would best serve their children. If they couldn’t find one, they could band together with other parents or a community organization to create one.

Accountability would increase, rather than be lost. Every four or five years, the district would do an in-depth evaluation of each charter school, then decide whether to renew the charter–or hand over the school to someone else who could try to do better.

Education reform has been on the front burner of state politics since the 1983 report “A Nation at Risk” sounded an alarm about the quality of America’s public schools. Teachers are working harder, children are spending more time in school and student performance is improving. Yet progress has been painfully slow.

The Education Commission of the States, established more than 30 years ago by the nation’s governors and chaired this year by Wyoming Gov. Jim Geringer (R), asked our 17-member group to focus not on piecemeal reforms but on changing the governance system–the basic rules of the public education game. My colleagues in this effort included current and former school board members, superintendents, principals, teachers, professors, governors, legislators, union leaders, business people and journalists.

Why focus on governance? Consider an analogy. Imagine a commission created to recommend improvements in Soviet state enterprises, circa 1985. Imagine that conventional measures–higher production standards, higher pay, more training, more ability for Moscow to step in and take over a factory, even a prohibition against shipping defective products–had produced only marginal improvement.

Such a commission–if it weren’t pulling its punches–would have called for fundamental reform of the system governing Soviet enterprise. It would have recommended decentralization, consumer choice and competition among producers. The desired result: a market economy in which producers had to sell their products to customers if they wanted to survive, but had enough freedom from central control to transform their operations.

I use this analogy because American public education in the 20th century has been organized much as Soviet enterprise was. Most schools have been told what to teach, how long, how to spend their budgets–and sometimes even whom to hire. Though they have had little meaningful control, they also have had little accountability for performance. If a school did a wonderful job, nothing good happened to its principal and teachers; but if it did a terrible job, nothing bad happened, either. Like one of those Soviet factories, it could just keep pumping out defective products.

A school system is not an economy, of course. But our group concluded that public school districts needed the same kind of fundamental reform. Because we concluded that different districts might need different approaches, we proposed two basic models based on successful reforms of the past decade.

The first–full public school choice–is more incremental. It would decentralize control by giving more power to individual schools to allocate money, hire and fire, and make decisions about pay. And it would build in choice and competition, with schools funded according to how many children enrolled. But districts would continue to own and operate the public schools and employ their staffs.

The second is the charter model. Why would our group even contemplate publicly authorized, publicly funded, but independently operated schools?

Because school boards and superintendents will do a far better job of steering if they aren’t preoccupied with rowing. Today, they often get bogged down in micromanagement, because they employ thousands of people and oversee hundreds of school buildings. Meanwhile, key policy issues–how to best serve at-risk students or how to improve teacher recruitment–are neglected.

Even more important, perhaps, is the freedom that a “chartering board” would have to make decisions. Most school boards want to do what’s best for the children. But often that creates problems for the adults in the system–the principals, the teachers, even the custodians. And the adults not only have unions, they mobilize and vote at election time. If school boards contracted with independent organizations, which employed their own teachers, the battle of self-interest would be different. Charter operators would, of course, push their own interests at election time. But they wouldn’t necessarily act as a unified block. Boards would be freer to act in the best interests of the children.

The charter school is the fastest-growing form of public school. In only their seventh year of existence, nearly 1,700 charter schools enroll some 350,000 students nationwide. (In the District of Columbia, one in 11 public school students now attends a charter school.) They please most of their customers: Seventy percent of the schools have waiting lists and, on a national survey, 65 percent of parents rated their children’s charter schools better than their former public schools; fewer than 6 percent rated them worse.

Charter schools are not perfect, and many school boards are still learning how to hold them accountable for performance. But when charter schools truly botch the job, they are usually shut down–unlike the traditional failing school, which goes on and on.

Why not learn from success? States could pass legislation allowing districts to experiment with either model, just as Wisconsin passed legislation allowing Milwaukee to experiment with vouchers for poor students. They could then compare results in the experimental districts with those in traditional districts that have similar socioeconomic characteristics.

Our children deserve no less.

David Osborne is co-author of Banishing Bureaucracy: The Five Strategies for Reinventing Government (Penguin) and a managing partner of the Public Strategies Group Inc.

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