Moving from a School System to a System of Schools

The Urban School System of the Future: Applying the Principles and Lessons of Chartering
by Andy Smarick
New Frontiers in Education, 2012, $30.95; 190 pages.

As reviewed by Michael McShane

Andy Smarick opens The Urban School System of the Future with a depressing realization; “The traditional urban school system is broken, and it cannot be fixed.” Over the next 170 pages, he outlines exactly how the system has failed and what we can do to transform it. His solution: dissolve the urban school district as we know it and replace it with a system of chartered schools. His analysis of the problems facing all sectors of urban schools is incisive, smart, and thoughtful and he brings to bear data (especially regarding Catholic schools) that sheds new light on these familiar topics. Though he strays a bit in his conclusion, his systematic analysis of the ills of existing urban schools is spot on.

In order to frame his argument, Smarick divides his book into four sections.

Section one details the depth and breadth of the failure of both public urban education systems and our efforts to reform them. Marshalling a vast array of data and summarizing the relevant literature, he makes a compelling case that nothing that we have done, to date, has had a meaningful, system-wide positive impact on urban schools’ performance.

So where do we go from here? Smarick argues that the answer lies in charter schooling, the topic of his second section. Charter agreements have four “systematic advantages” over the current arrangement of schools: the ability to start new, diversity of options, the opportunity for replication and expansion, and the possibility of closure. Drawing on examples from successful public and private ventures, he makes the case that these four elements are essential in order for a system to reform, grow, or adapt to changing circumstances.

In a pleasant and unexpected twist, Smarick devotes section three to an oft-forgotten player in urban education, private schools. However, unlike the doom and gloom prognostications that most observers offer when discussing inner city private schools, Smarick offers a hopeful look into the future of the sector. Most importantly, he points out that public money can reach private schools without violating the Constitution, providing an opportunity to save many struggling schools on the brink of closure. If funds are equitably shared with public options and schools are held accountable, he argues, this can also be a system that is politically feasible.

Throughout his discussions of the public, charter, and private sectors, Smarick makes a convincing case that the decades old debate over which sector performs “better” is the wrong way of evaluating performance. Using a series of scatter plots and histograms, he shows the wide diversity in performance in all three sectors, and most interestingly, the wide variance in performance of those enrolling the poorest children. In essence, he argues, there are high and low performers in all three sectors, and the more effective strategy of managing a portfolio of inner city schools is one that belies “sector agnosticism.” Instead of looking at schools on three quality curves (one for each sector) we should plot all schools into a single distribution and then try to move all schools to the right.

With all of this in mind, in the fourth and final section, Smarick lays out his ideal system of school reform. He imagines an urban school system organized around five pillars: first, that great schools from all sectors are expanded and replicated; second, that persistently failing schools are closed; third, that new schools are continuously started; fourth, that there is a wide variety of schools and entities to authorize and oversee them; and finally, that families have choice between these schools. Schools receiving public dollars would operate under a performance contract with a charter authorizer, which could take the form of a school district, CMO or EMO, or religious organization like a Catholic diocese. These authorizers would report to a small, centralized office of the “school chancellor,” whose job, rather than operate schools, would be to “keep the system fluid, responsive, high-performing, and self-improving by facilitating and managing starts, closures, and expansions; guaranteeing diversity; and enabling choice.”(154)

Fundamentally I am sympathetic to Smarick’s solution; promoting parental choice and “churn” in schools could very well be the shock that these frustratingly intransigent bureaucracies need to better serve the needs of student and families. However, his idea of a mayoral-appointed chancellor gives me pause. Sure, if the mayor appoints a true “sector agnostic” that does not care which type of school is producing solid results and is insulated from the politics of school closure, it would significantly increase the chance of success in a decentralized system. However, it is hard to imagine a system in which such a person would exist. The politics of schooling are too contentious and the interests are simply too strong to avoid having the chancellor be captured by their influence. In this year’s PDK/Gallup poll, for example, support for charter schools was intensely partisan, with a full 26 point spread (80% to 54%) between Republicans and Democrats. Vouchers fare even worse.  Although the survey showed strong gains for voucher approval over past administrations, it still sits at 44%.  It is not hard to imagine a more partisan Democratic mayor appointing a chancellor that would be less friendly to private school options than traditional public schools and thus more likely to support the creation and continued existence of the traditional options.

Although Smarick decries progressives earlier in the book for believing that solutions can be found in a bureaucracy of disinterested professionals, he puts too much faith in the “enlightened statesman” school chancellor.   As he says in chapter five, describing the dysfunction of the progressive-designed traditional school system, “an important feature of this central apparatus [the bureaucracy] was its complete control over its schools” but, compared to the chancellor of Smarick’s vision, the traditional superintendent has far less power. In this “charterized” system, everyone from dioceses to CMOs would answer to the chancellor and would be subject to his or her whim. Again, if that person is a true sector agnostic and remains above the politics of urban schooling, the system will work, but in the highly likely event that is not so, the entire system would fall apart. Madison was right in Federalist No. 10 when he said “it is in vain to say that enlightened statesmen will be able to adjust these clashing interests, and render them all subservient to the public good. Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm.”

The Urban School System of the Future offers a compelling vision that school reformers should take seriously. Only through understanding the opportunities and limitations inherent our nation’s urban school systems can we endeavor to develop the next generation of school management strategies.

Michael McShane is a research fellow at AEI and co-author of President Obama and Education Reform: The Personal and the Political.

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