America’s Reform Challenge

Education reform does not suffer from lack of energy or activity. Everywhere you look—Congress, state legislatures, local school boards, wherever—scores of eager-beavers are filing bills, proposing solutions, calling for change, and otherwise trying to “push the ball forward.” Yet for all the effort, for all the pain, we see little gain. What gives?

The conventional answer, in most reform circles, comes down to: “the opposition of special interests.” Teachers unions, school administrators, colleges of education, textbook publishers, and other defenders (and beneficiaries) of the status quo fight change at every step and guard their selfish prerogatives jealously.

That may all be true, but our challenges are much more fundamental. It’s not that the wrong people are in charge. It’s that there are so many cooks in the education kitchen that nobody is really in charge. And that is a consequence of an antiquated governance structure that practically forces all those cooks to enter and remain in the kitchen.

We bow to the mantra of “local control” yet, in fact, nearly every major decision affecting the education of our children is shaped (and mis-shaped) by at least four separate levels of governance: Washington, the state capitol, the local district, and the individual school building itself.

Consider so seemingly straightforward a decision as which person will be employed to fill a seventh-grade teacher opening at the Lincoln School, located in, let us say, Metropolis, West Carolina. One might suppose that Lincoln’s principal, or perhaps the top instructional staff at that school, should decide which candidate is likeliest to succeed in that particular classroom. But under the typical circumstance, the most the principal might be able to do is reject wholly unsuitable candidates. (And often not even that, considering seniority and “bumping rights” within the district, its collective-bargaining contract and, frequently, state law.)

The superintendent’s HR office does most of the vetting and placing, but it is shackled by the contract, by state licensure practices (which may be set by an “independent”— probably union and ed-school dominated—professional-standards board), by seniority rules that are probably enshrined in both contract and state law, and by uniform salary schedules that mean the new teacher (assuming similar “credentials”) will be paid the same fixed amount whether the subject most needed at Lincoln is math or phys ed.

Washington gets into the act, too, with “highly qualified teacher” requirements that constrain the school. By the end of the process, at least a dozen different governing units impede the principal’s authority to staff his school with the ablest (and best suited) teachers available.

Yet teacher selection is but one of many examples of the “too many cooks” problem. Much the same kitchen congestion afflicts special education, the budgeting and control of a school’s funds, and the handling of school discipline. (Not to mention a more literal “too many cooks” issue: what to serve for lunch in the school cafeteria?)

Reformers look at this mess and try to rationalize it, but never quite seem to succeed. In Colorado, for example, Senator Mike Johnston marshaled a very thoughtful teacher reform bill through the legislature. It untangled some of the worst problems of the old system but added new complexities and actors, too. It’s a case study of why the history of reform often looks like an archeological dig somewhere in Greece or Jordan: one layer of policy change on top of another.

Now some reformers want a “parent trigger” (in Colorado and elsewhere) so the system’s “consumers” can cut through all the red tape and intransigence of the local and state bureaucracy and force change to happen, now. The impulse is great (and in my view it’s a mechanism worth trying, along with “recovery districts” and the education equivalent of “enterprise zones,” all of them ways of snipping through the tape), but it adds yet another dimension to the educational tug of war.

So is there any way to clear out the kitchen so that everyone involved in education can just focus on teaching and learning? Utopia may not be achievable but surely we can do better than we do today. A good place to start is with the concept of subsidiarity. The Oxford English Dictionary defines this as “the idea that a central authority should have a subsidiary function, performing only those tasks which cannot be performed effectively at a more immediate or local level.”

In education, that would mean:

  • Empowering building-level educators to make nearly all of the key decisions about how their schools operate (including which curriculum to use, how to hire, pay, and evaluate teachers, what to invest dollars in, etc.);
  • Giving parents the right to choose among schools in order to find a good match with their own preferences and values;
  • Raising the funds for our schools at a central level, then redistributing them in an equitable manner to individual schools—in return for acceptable academic results.

This implies an “every school a charter school” system, or even a voucher approach (if private schools are to be included), combined with an accountability framework and weighted-student funding. Note that teachers unions, school districts, and top-down reforms (like a statewide teacher evaluation system) don’t have a place in this new model.

This wouldn’t solve all of our problems. Some schools would make good decisions, others would fail. But there would be fewer cooks. And the ones that remained would have greater control over their kitchens. Why not give it a try?

-Mike Petrilli

This blog entry originally appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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