Can Charter School Autonomy Coexist with Community Control over Schools?

By 06/27/2016

Many education reformers once thought that parental choice was the “ultimate local control.” When opponents of choice programs defended the district monopoly system by rhetorically asking, “Don’t you believe in your locally elected board?” we’d reply, “We want education decisions to be made as close to kids as possible—by families.”

We thought that this was the morally sound answer. But we also thought that it was a political winner. Sure, there’d be opposition from those lobbying on behalf of the districts that stood to lose control. But everyone else would want to empower parents.

Moreover, many of us had read John Chubb and Terry Moe’s seminal Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools, which argued that democratic control was the cause of many of public education’s troubles. Local school boards, many reformers believed, were populated by aspiring politicians with pet issues and petty grievances. They were controlled by powerful interest groups who cared about things other than student learning.

We assumed that school results would be much better, and school politics much reduced, if we dramatically decentralized the system by handing authority to families, educators, and civil society. Teachers could start and lead schools, nonprofits could operate and support schools, and parents could match their kids to the programs that fit them best. We could rid ourselves of all the campaign nastiness and government sclerosis that comes with embedding public education within a political system.

But a curious thing happened along our righteous, electorally watertight path to greater choice: People decided that they liked democracy, too.

So today, in cities with too few options, families clamor for more choice. Charter waitlists overflow, and advocates lobby for new voucher, tax-credit, or ESA programs. At the same time, in cities where charter sectors have blossomed (e.g., New Orleans, Detroit, Newark), communities are demanding more democratic control. How to balance the two has turned out to be one of the most interesting and difficult quandaries in schooling today.

Of course, choice advocates were never opposed to all government activity in public education. The government was obviously needed to ensure that schools were following important laws and that there were standards for what students should know and be able to do. But much of this work could be done by state government or appointed officials.

But authority that is both local and democratic has also been in demand. A community’s voters want to have a say over what types of schools exist, what constitutes “good schools,” who runs them, how an area’s culture and traditions are passed on, and much more. Decisions are more reflective of the public’s will when these issues are litigated through the democratic process. Additionally, we can have faith that the discussion is transparent, that people feel agency, and that the results—even if imperfect—will be durable and respected.

The “local” and “democratic” aspects of school authority can be especially important in historically underserved communities. Because of segregation, redlining, and other unjust policies, many of our fellow citizens don’t merely suffer unfair conditions; they suffer environments they’ve been precluded from changing. They want and deserve the right to have a significant influence over the policies affecting them and their neighbors— especially those related to the education of their kids.

And therein lies our fundamental challenge. Today’s decentralized systems of choice empower families and enable a wide array of options, but they inhibit the community’s ability to shape the contours of the local school system. Yesterday’s district-based system was democratically controlled, but the centralization of authority in a single government body prevented dynamism and choice and produced a half-century of heartbreaking results.

So what in the world do we do?

I’m concerned that policy makers will see the choice as binary. We’ll either try to forever insulate systems of choice from democratic control, or we’ll turn them over to dysfunctional, longstanding, traditional school boards (like NOLA just did). But there is a middle path.

We need to begin experimenting, in earnest, with democratically controlled authorizers. If a city has a large charter sector, state government could create a new authorizer with an elected board (or require existing authorizers to move to elected boards). That democratically controlled authorizer would then have a performance contract with each of the city’s public schools, including those operated by the district.

The city would preserve its diversity of schools and operators, as well as the right of parents to choose schools, through such an arrangement. But voters would have a say in how the system worked. Some traditionalists would be unsatisfied because the elected board wouldn’t own and operate every single public school. Some choice advocates would be unsatisfied because the democratic process would influence the system.

But this approach recognizes the virtues of decentralization and choice as well as democratic control. It gives the community a voice while making it clear that the board’s role is to authorize schools, not operate them.

My book from 2012 started exploring this idea, and Hill and Jochim’s excellent A Democratic Constitution for Public Education did the same. Moreover, there are already examples of democratically controlled authorizers (like Indy’s mayor), so we wouldn’t be breaking new ground.

Fordham just asked reformers to find common ground on contentious issues. This new approach to school accountability offers a way to blend deeply held principles that are currently in tension.

– Andy Smarick

This first appeared on Flypaper.

In the News: Increasing Teacher Diversity Could Be a Game-Changer for Students’ Academic Attitudes

By 06/27/2016

A new paper looks at the impact of having demographically similar teachers on a wide range of students’ academic perceptions.

In the News: What’s Really in LAUSD’s Online Credit Recovery Courses?

By 06/27/2016

An L.A. Times editorial writer arranged to take one of the online credit recovery courses taken by students and found good and bad.

Three Fixes for the Charter Marketplace

Even after twenty-five years, charters in most places remain an alien implant in the body of American public education, and all sorts of immune reactions persist.

Why Teachers Need Portable Benefits

By 06/24/2016

Traditional pension benefits aren’t portable. When a teacher moves to a new state, her previous service years don’t automatically rollover for free. Instead, she starts back at zero.

A Scholarly Approach to School Accountability

States now enjoy a freer hand to decide how they want to rate their schools. What should they do?

What’s at Stake in the Ongoing Fight About School Spending Comparability?

By 06/23/2016

Today’s dispute over comparability marks the midpoint in a decades-long struggle over whether districts have a right to skimp on funding their most troubled schools.

Of Big ‘R’ and Little ‘r’ School Reform

By 06/23/2016

For all the passion, though, I’m not sure that we actually have all that clear an idea of what it means to be a “reformer.”

How DC and New Orleans Are Addressing Excessive Discipline While Respecting School Autonomy

By 06/22/2016

No one doubts that suspension and expulsion rates in too many public schools are far too high. But simply telling schools to “do less” suspensions and expulsions, has not worked.

10 States Spend More on Employee Retirement Costs Than on Higher Education

By 06/22/2016

Pensions are eating further and further into state and local education budgets, eating up dollars that could be spent on lots of other things, especially higher education.

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