“The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”
When I became involved in education reform more than two decades ago, the movement was about empowering parents to make choices for their own children rather than having choices made for them by well-meaning but distant bureaucrats and professionals. At its heart, ed reform was about decentralization of control.
In the last quarter-century this effort to expand choice in education has been amazingly successful. We’ve gone from the first charter school in 1990 to more than 4% of all students enrolled in charters. We’ve gone from two, century-old voucher programs in Maine and Vermont to having private school choice in more than half of the states. And the beauty of expanding school choice is that it generates its own advocates as families that benefit from these programs lobby to protect and expand their are almost at the point where ed reform organizations don’t have to do very much other than to coordinate choice families pushing for more choices.
But just as choice is achieving escape velocity, a groupthink gang of petty little dictators are grabbing the reins of ed reform organizations to advocate for greater restrictions and regulations on choice. They are beginning to make arguments and advocate policies that are essentially the same as the ones favored by the traditional education establishment. Like their rivals in the traditional ed establishment, this new ed reform establishment mistrusts parents to make choices. Parents, in their view, are not capable of making good choices without the guidance and restrictions imposed by experts and policymakers. And children need to be protected by regulations and bureaucrats against the errors and abuses of their parents or schools.
It has gotten to the point where, like in Animal Farm, it is difficult to tell the difference between the nanny-statism of the old ed establishment and the new ed reform establishment. The new ed reformers are no longer fighting for parental empowerment, they are just struggling with the old establishment over who will be in control. Will it be the smart and righteous reformers, as they imagine themselves, or the stupid and self-interested old establishment, as they imagine the unions and their allies? The reformers are convinced they can do it better, but the arrangements they favor are not all that different from those championed by the old guard.
Reformers are currently gathered in a groupthink frenzy over the need to regulate how charter schools discipline their students. You know who else issues detailed policies on school discipline? Traditional school districts. Last year they were in a frenzy over the need to force charter schools to “backfill” so that they can take more students in more grades that are assigned to them. You know who else is pre-occupied with filling seats in schools with assigned students? Traditional school districts.
It is currently the fashion among reformers to favor portfolio management, in which a single super-regulator would control which schools open, which close, and issue policies regarding transportation, special education, discipline and other matters. We’ve even heard proposals recently to have the entity responsible for opening, closing, and regulating schools be elected democratically. Let’s see if you can guess what all of this sounds like. That’s right — traditional school districts. They are also democratically elected. They also decide which schools should open and close. They also issue policies regarding transportation, special education, discipline and other matters. I have looked from portfolio management to districts, and from districts to portfolio management, and from portfolio management to districts again; but already it is impossible to say which is which.
The advocates of portfolio management or democratically elected authorizers say that the difference is that traditional districts actually operate schools, while their proposed entities only concern themselves with opening, closing, and regulating while avoiding interference in operational matters. We were assured that things would be fine with portfolio management in New Orleans despite the takeover of that role by the Orleans Parish School Board because the district is prohibited from interfering with school operations.
I may not be able to read the continually revised commandments on the barn wall much better than Boxer, but I’m pretty sure that issuing policies with respect to school discipline, special education, admissions, and transportation necessarily interfere with school operations. And it is only a hop, skip, and jump from telling schools whether they can suspend kids to telling them which methods best teach reading or how many minutes they should be on the playground. Anyone who is not hypnotized by the reform groupthink would recognize that school boards do not “operate” schools any more than portfolio managers do. Boards just develop policies to govern schools, just like portfolio managers do. They contract with others to operate schools under those regulations, just like portfolio managers do. And they decide which schools should be opened and which should be closed, just like portfolio managers do.
The ed reform crowd enamored with portfolio management and issuing a host of regulations dictating how schools must operate and what parents may choose has become almost indistinguishable from the traditional education crowd with whom they are vying for control. I say a pox on both their houses. I got into this line of work because I was excited about empowering parents to make decisions, not imposing my superior brand of control on them.
—Jay P. Greene