The ‘Public’ in the Urban Public Education System of the Future

Last week, I participated in two events that challenged my ideas on one of urban education’s trickiest and most combustible issues.

Those who know only a caricatured version of my views might be surprised by both the subject and those who’ve caused my ruminations. But I wrestled with this issue in my book, and while I don’t always see eye-to-eye with my interlocutors of last week, they have valuable insights into this issue.

I’m writing about it here both because it’s important and because, frankly, I need help figuring out the right answer.

The question is, “How do we protect the ‘public’ in public education?”

On Wednesday, I participated in this discussion at the AFT’s Shanker Institute. At a conference the following day, I moderated a conversation between urban school leaders, and similar issues kept bubbling up.

There are many ways to define a school’s “public-ness” (Rick Hess expertly unbundles the issues here). But the aspect I’m most concerned about relates to governance, whether the public—the adults in the geographic area served by the system of schools—is able to shape the contours of the system.

The very specific issue I’m interested in is how this can happen absent locally elected school boards.

Per state constitutions, ensuring a system of public education is the responsibility of state governments. They, however, have created local school districts and boards, thereby delegating K–12 authority to these creatures of state law and facilitating “local control” of schools.

But over the years, as urban districts have failed to produce the results desired, state governments have sought to recapture this authority. They’ve generally used four strategies.

First, through “mayoral control,” a city’s elected executive displaces the school board, choosing the superintendent and providing system leadership. Second, a “state takeover” typically puts the district under the control of the state department of education; the local board loses power, and the superintendent is chosen by the state.

Third, through non-district charter authorizing, the state empowers one or more entities to approve and oversee public schools within the district’s geographic area. Lastly, extraordinary authority bodies, like the Recovery School District, can take away a district’s schools and either directly manage or convert them to charter status.

All are legal extensions of state authority, and, at a high level, I support all four. Each disrupts power dynamics that aren’t working for students, and they’ve each typically led to more educational options and empowered low-income families with choice, especially in recent years.

However, to different degrees, all four of these actions cut away at local democratic control. Mayoral control is the least intrusive; while the locally elected board loses power, the replacement authority, the mayor, is still a locally elected official. But takeovers elevate the state above local boards, independent charter authorizing works around local boards, and RSD-like entities take schools away from local boards.

Chartering adds another layer of complexity. In the case of mayoral and state takeovers, the district can remain the dominant actor—meaning that when control is returned to a locally elected board, that board exerts influence over the entire system again.

But if an RSD-like body takes over failing district schools and converts them to charters (like in New Orleans), or if a non-district authorizer creates a substantial charter sector (like in D.C.), many public schools will forever exist outside of the locally elected board’s influence.

With all four interventions, the question of who governs is front and center. But in the case of a large independent charter sector, the question is whether the entire system can ever be uniformly governed by anyone or anything.

Charter advocates, myself included, often argue that charters are the epitome of local control—families are choosing schools and each school has its own board. But local control and local democratic control are two different things.

Charter authorizers, depending on how they are structured, can provide a level of democratic input. But since chartering was created so schools could be largely independent, the ability of authorizers to exert substantial systemic control will always be limited.

In my book, I offered the idea of a system-wide “chancellor.” This public entity would both “portfolio manage” and provide the connective tissue between schools, authorizers, the government, and the community. This was my attempt to protect the “public” in a decentralized, dynamic, choice-driven system of public education.

In the years to come, I expect urban school systems to be comprised of more and more independent schools and the traditional urban district—and its locally elected board—to have diminished authority.

I’m trying to solve for two problems. First, the collective public still needs a voice. How do we facilitate some form of democratic control that doesn’t constrain family choice, impinge on school autonomy, or replicate the shortcomings of traditional school boards?

Second, while protecting choice and autonomy, we must also ensure system-wide coherence. Absent smart, overarching policies on enrollment, facilities, funding, and more, this new system will never live up to its promise.

These issues are too seldom discussed, and that’s a shame. But the upside is that the normal political battle lines have yet to be drawn. Before trench warfare sets in, I’m hoping we can launch a fruitful discussion about the “public” in the public education system of the future.

-Andy Smarick

This first appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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