A Battle Begun, Not Won

The following essay is part of a forum, written in honor of Education Next’s 10th anniversary, in which the editors assessed the school reform movement’s victories and challenges to see just how successful reform efforts have been. For the other side of the debate, please see Pyrrhic Victories? by Frederick M. Hess, Michael J. Petrilli, and Martin West.

Many education reformers are feeling optimistic these days, willing to claim that they have won the war of ideas and that all that remains is mopping up a few leftover messes and working out the details of the new education regime that already exists in their minds. Arkansas professor Jay Greene has declared flat-out victory, claiming the teachers unions have become indistinguishable from the tobacco industry, determined to defend turf that is now utterly indefensible.

Giving credit where it’s due, the reform campaign has had successes. Prodded by Bill Gates, Eli Broad, and other veteran private-sector reformers, the Obama administration has lent unexpectedly forceful support to such causes as common standards, better assessments, charter schools, merit pay, refurbished teacher preparation, and the removal of ineffective instructors. A left-leaning celebrity filmmaker has entreated viewers of Waiting for “Superman” to ponder the sad reality that poor students cannot attend good schools without winning a lottery in which the odds are stacked overwhelmingly against them.

The new federal initiative, Race to the Top, inspired statutory changes in a dozen states. Hundreds of millions of philanthropic and federal dollars are flooding toward such national organizations as KIPP and Teach For America as well as to local and state-specific ventures in a hundred places.
A brigade of governors, led by New Jersey’s Chris Christie and Indiana’s Mitch Daniels, has pressed a wide school-reform agenda and many state legislators—including Democrats in places like Colorado—are participating in the process. In New York City, the mayor is replacing one reform-minded outsider, Joel Klein, with another, Cathleen Black, despite strenuous union maneuvers to block the appointment. Even the defeat of District of Columbia mayor Adrian Fenty, who backed schools chancellor Michelle Rhee’s dramatic efforts to reboot public education in the nation’s capital, has not proven too dispiriting. Rhee was too strident, it is said; a subtler, more sophisticated approach may still work. Meanwhile, she negotiated a path-breaking contract.

In state after state, the teachers unions are indeed besieged on multiple fronts. The momentum is with the reformers. So say some.

The Arsenal

Alas, we’re not so sanguine. It’s way, way too early to declare victory. Atop the cliffs and bastions that reformers are attacking, the opposition has plenty of weapons with which to hold its territory.

For this is no single war and nothing can be done at the national level to win it. Most of the crucial decisions about how U.S. schools run and who teaches what to whom in which classrooms are still made in 14,000 semi-autonomous school districts, nearly all of them run by locally elected school boards, often with campaign dollars supplied by those with whom they negotiate collectively, and managed by professional superintendents, trained in colleges of education and socialized over the years into the prevailing culture of public education.

That culture is in no way reform-minded. It believes that educators know best, that elected school boards are the embodiment of democracy in action, that colleges of education are the path to true professionalism, that collective bargaining is necessary to protect teacher rights, and that any failings visible in today’s schools, teachers, and students are either the fault of heedless parents or the consequence of incompetent administrators and stingy taxpayers.

Nor is it just at the local level that vested interests are entrenched. In corridors and committee rooms of state legislatures, lobbyists and campaign contributors also safeguard the interests of employees and vendors. Teachers unions are still the number-one source of political contributions and, in places like California and Minnesota, they appear stronger than either political party. Statewide tenure laws remain largely intact, as do laws that require a specific set of education-school courses before a teacher can be certified, despite the paucity of evidence that such courses (or certification) yield benefits in the classroom. Most states have set their student proficiency bars at a low level, and no state—not even Florida, which came the closest—has been able to mandate that teacher pay be calibrated to classroom performance. Few jurisdictions have passed significant voucher and tax-credit legislation, and most have hedged charter laws with one or another of a multiplicity of provisos—that charters are limited in number, can only be authorized by school districts (their natural enemies), cannot enroll more than a fixed number of students, get less money per pupil than district-run schools, and so on. Thus, the (in)famous lottery that propels the Superman story forward.

Even in Washington, where reformers place much hope for change, the push is pretty much limited to Race to the Top, an executive-branch initiative lacking a clear legislative mandate. Congress has not been able to repair and reauthorize No Child Left Behind, despite some thoughtful recommendations from the White House. All this might change with the incoming Congress, but many pundits think the odds are against it. More Republicans than ever are worshiping before the false god of local control, and too many Democrats have learned from their union friends that local control ain’t so bad after all, especially when free money flows to local districts and teacher paychecks arrive courtesy of the U. S. Treasury. In any case, neither party sees more to be gained politically from compromise than from deadlock.

As if this weren’t enough to force reformers to haul victory flags back down the cliffs, the U.S. education system is structured in such a way that initiatives undertaken at any level can be stymied, blocked, or derailed at the other levels. Some analysts have used the term “loosely coupled” to characterize the connections among the various levels of government. Even when the policy train’s engine is chugging mightily, no movement occurs in the caboose. A crusading local superintendent’s effort to change his district’s teacher recruitment and retention practices can be brought to a halt by the state’s seniority law, tenure law, and collective-bargaining statutes. A governor who enacts a charter law may find that no school board will actually authorize such schools or allow them access to empty buildings owned by the district. (Such problems have long frustrated charter advocates in Maryland, Florida, Colorado, and California.) A U.S. secretary of education who puts billions on the table for teacher evaluations to be tied to pupil achievement is apt to find that states and districts do better at promising than at delivering cooperation.

And all of this is before you even get to the fundamental fact that, when 3.5 million classroom doors swing shut on a Tuesday morning, those teachers are pretty much free to teach (or not teach) whatever they like, regardless of thunderous commands, incentives, pleadings, and resources from district, state, or Uncle Sam. Such freedom gives scope to thousands of brilliant, dedicated teachers in schools across the country, yet the mechanisms for separating out weak performers are not in place. And with the exit of Michelle Rhee, who made the design of such a system her primary objective, brave will be the superintendent who heads down that path. As a result, No Child Left Behind holds schools accountable but, when a school fails, tenure and seniority assured by statute and/or collective bargaining agreements allow lemons to dance on to the school down the street.

In Search of Allies

The unions show no genuine evidence of endorsing reform measures, however much their leaders may pose as agents of change. For all the artful dodging around tenure and performance pay by American Federation of Teachers president (AFT) Randi Weingarten, local union affiliates almost always kill any but the mildest changes. They oppose the accountability provisions of No Child Left Behind, they everywhere resist the formation of charter schools (and let us not even speak of vouchers), and they can be relied upon to muster their vast electoral strength and whopping campaign contributions behind whichever candidates promise not to cause them any grief. This is not new. The late Albert Shanker, president of the AFT, was a towering figure in the national standards and school accountability debates of the late 20th century, yet nearly all of the AFT’s state and local affiliates refused to buy what their own leader was selling.

Often, too, reform is just one passenger in a crowded vehicle. Although the Obama administration put $4 billion into its reform-minded Race to the Top contest, the bulk of its new education funding—more than $100 billion handed out in two rounds of stimulus packages—financed the status quo. If one looks strictly at the flow of federal dollars rather than the flow of talk, one sees that in 2010 maintaining jobs for teachers trumped fixing schools for kids.

Nor have Republicans shown much inclination to carry the reform torch forward. The 2010 elections were dominated by jobs, taxes, and deficits. Yet it’s hard to see how good jobs can be lastingly restored to the American economy without boosting the quality of the U.S. workforce. Jobs and education are complementary issues, not competitive ones. In November 2009, Republican gubernatorial candidates won office in New Jersey and Virginia in part by making education a top issue. Still the GOP leadership has not crafted a comprehensible education agenda from that success.

It’s early days yet for the 2012 presidential race, to be sure, but apart from Mitch Daniels, the likely GOP candidates have barely mentioned the topic. Other than former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who heads the Foundation for Excellence in Education and seems even more committed to reform than his brother was, and Lamar Alexander, another former governor who “gets” this issue and cares deeply about it, party leaders seem uncertain as to what needs to be done or how to go about it. Even on issues that conform closely to the larger Republican agenda, such as freedom of choice, teaching the talented, and creating a workforce that will preserve the nation’s role in the world economy, ideas and conviction are scarce.

Perhaps it’s unfair to ask politicians to reform schools if the public is not demanding it of them. Unfortunately, there is little sign that the U.S. public has embraced education reform with gusto. In the latest Education Next poll (published in November 2010), support for vouchers slipped. Charter and merit-pay supporters outnumbered opponents by 2:1, but a near plurality of the public refused to take a position on either issue, revealing just how much further into the public consciousness reform ideas need to penetrate. Similarly, only a quarter of those surveyed think teachers should have tenure, but more—nearly 40 percent—have no opinion on the matter. Support for holding students accountable slipped somewhat and opinion on extending No Child Left Behind remained split. As many people saw teachers unions as a positive force as thought that their role had been negative.

It’s true that the public thinks the country’s schools are doing poorly. Only 18 percent gave them an A or a B grade. Yet a clear majority thought their own elementary and middle schools were doing quite well, with 65 percent conferring honors grades on their elementary school and 55 percent awarding such marks to their middle school. The prevailing view seems to be that “schools are bad except for those in my neighborhood. These do not need changing—and they are the schools I really care about.” That provides little basis for comprehensive education reform.

If the public, the political parties, and the most powerful interest groups are either apathetic about or hostile to education reform, how can the reformers prevail? In the case of the tobacco industry, the courts did much of the heavy lifting, giving cancer victims standing to sue and allowing juries to award billions of dollars in punitive damages.

It doesn’t work that way in education. With the important exception of school desegregation, judges have more often retarded than advanced the reform agenda. When the courts declared state education systems inadequate, the only relief they provided was a pile of taxpayer cash—to be spent by the same bureaucracy that was said to be inefficient and inadequate. The Supreme Court found in the Constitution student rights to protest and to lengthy legal procedures before they could be suspended, but it has never discovered a constitutional right to a choice of school. And when it finally declared that vouchers do not violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment, state courts began to discover that they violate various provisions of state constitutions. Charter schools and tax credits have also suffered setbacks in state courts from Florida to Arizona. Union contracts and tenure provisions fare well in court proceedings, forcing superintendents to rehire teachers that they tried to fire and reopen schools that they tried to close. Meanwhile, today’s schools remain almost as segregated as they were in the 1970s.

Victory Signs

What will be the first sign that reformers are truly winning? It was clear the tobacco industry had met its match when the surgeon general made smoking a national health issue, when the mass media and entertainment industry abandoned the Marlboro man, when juries discovered that companies were responsible for the lungs of their consumers, and when powerful figures on Capitol Hill eschewed donations from tobacco magnates in favor of those contributed by trial lawyers who made billions from suing them.

What will be the equivalent signs of success for school reform? Will a big-time university president make K–12 education a personal cause—as Harvard presidents Charles Eliot and James Conant did decades ago? Will an election year come when Republican and Democratic candidates try to outbid one another with proposals for expanding charters, setting high standards, formulating tough accountability regimes, and curbing union power? Will a state supreme court, as part of its remedy in a fiscal equity lawsuit, decree that all children be given a choice of any school, public or private, with the state paying the cost? Will the dean of education at a high-status university campaign for the end of state-mandated certification? Will a legislature—in a state with collective bargaining—require every school system to design and implement a merit-pay plan as a precondition for continued state aid?

Such signs would herald victory—at least in the war of ideas. Until that day arrives, however, keep in mind that if wishes were horses, beggars would ride. It’s dangerous to think a battle is over when it has just begun.

Paul E. Peterson is editor-in-chief of Education Next. Chester E. Finn, Jr. is the journal’s senior editor and Marci Kanstoroom an executive editor and senior web editor.

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