Street-Savvy School Reform

Political scientist E. E. Schattschneider likened politics to a fight between two men in a street. If nobody intervenes, the stronger will win. But if the weaker fighter can get a bystander to join in on his side, the dynamic changes. As Schattschneider noted, the result depends less on the strength of the two fighters than on the behavior of the crowd.

ednext-july16-web-hill-jochim-img01One bystander might enter because he thinks a combatant is fighting dirty and he wants to defend the principle of fair play; another because he identifies with the race or religion of one of the combatants; another because he hopes to make off with one fighter’s watch; and so on. The issues at stake can evolve as parties with different agendas join one side or the other.

These insights into the nature of political conflict explain much about contemporary education reform. Efforts to improve big-city school systems provoke a struggle. Like a street fight, the result depends less on the strength of the combatants than on the actions of others who join in.

This article is based on the experience of civic and education leaders in six big-city school systems—New York City, New Orleans, Denver, Oakland, Newark, and Cleveland—that have adopted a “portfolio strategy.” This approach calls for continuous improvement of a city’s schools through managing a mix, or portfolio, of schools—traditional public schools, privately managed schools, and charter schools—and regularly adjusting that mix (opening some and reconstituting others) in light of student needs. But our findings are relevant to any reform strategy bold enough to threaten established interests.

Lessons on the Politics of Reform

The portfolio strategy decentralizes power, redistributes funding, and weakens monopolies. Implementation requires a support coalition, and it’s sure to generate opposition. To succeed, reformers need to attract bystanders into the fight and induce those who oppose them to switch sides.

Following are seven lessons learned about how reformers can best manage the politics that inevitably emerge when the portfolio strategy is implemented.

Lesson 1. Elite support: It has its value and limitations.

Local elites (for example, businesses, local foundations, and philanthropic leaders) are naturally concerned about their city’s viability and are often the first to join the fight on the side of reformers.

Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson committed publicly to a portfolio reform strategy only after he and local foundations had laid a great deal of groundwork. A large group of young African-American and white professionals who had served on charter school boards provided a credible support base of people who believed that all public schools could become more supportive, personalized, and effective. This support base continued to grow as new charter and specialty school options gradually developed under Jackson’s portfolio-based “Cleveland Plan.”

Reform leaders don’t need unanimous support from local influentials, but losing all local elite support can be fatal. In Newark, when Mayor Cory Booker focused his attention on a run for the U.S. Senate, education reform in that city lost its local elite anchor. Superintendent Cami Anderson, who lacked ties to Newark, was left politically isolated and eventually resigned. Her replacement, Chris Cerf, is focused on building and maintaining collaborative relationships with local elites, community leaders, and other key stakeholders (see “Continuing Change in Newark,” features, Fall 2016).

In the long run, elite support is a necessary—but not sufficient—basis for a winning coalition. Compared to groups that depend on the schools for their incomes, elites have weaker incentives to endure harsh conflict or make a stand against long odds. Elites can be early supporters and valuable opinion leaders, but reformers also need to draw parents, neighborhood leaders, professionals, and faith leaders to their side.

Lesson 2. Turning parents into allies is essential—but challenging.

Of all the groups that reformers need to draw to their side, parents are the most indispensable but also the most challenging: Indispensable because they’re among the most affected by any reform, but challenging because they’re vastly more concerned about their own child’s experience in school than about the performance of the broader system. For that reason, parents can be annoyingly inconsistent: They can favor better schools but oppose anything that reallocates resources, challenges teachers to improve, or threatens jobs in schools or the district central office.

When the portfolio strategy brings tangible benefits—new schools, quality programs, and more equitable funding for schools in low-income neighborhoods—parents can become supporters. In New York City, parents in new charter schools have proven essential allies against union resistance and hostility from Mayor Bill de Blasio (see “Will Mayor de Blasio Turn Back the School Reform Clock?features, Spring 2014). In Denver, former Superintendent Michael Bennet worked first with Hispanic groups that were unhappy with their current schools. He also offered attractive choices for parents living near the city borders, who could take advantage of an open-enrollment policy to enroll their children in schools run by suburban districts.

Denver’s portfolio strategy was sustainable because parents and other voters continually frustrated opposition efforts to elect an anti-reform board and toss out Superintendents Bennet and, later, Tom Boasberg (see “Denver Expands Choice and Charters,” features, Summer 2016). Denver never depended on a state takeover, mayoral control, or natural disaster and has sustained the same leadership and strategy. There and elsewhere, a broad coalition anchored with support from both community members and local elites is the surest path toward lasting reform.

Lesson 3. Pay attention to how minority communities perceive the reform.

Reformers often prefer what political scientist Jeffrey Henig has called an a-racial narrative, in which school improvement is colorblind and all actions are understood only in terms of their effects on school quality and their benefits for students. But racial politics can profoundly affect reformers’ success and potential liabilities.

Schools have historically been an important source of employment and political enfranchisement for minority communities. School district jobs have been routes into the middle class, and the locally elected school board can symbolize grassroots democracy and give aspiring leaders a place to start.

Although the portfolio strategy aims to improve schools for historically disadvantaged groups, any effort to reform schools can be interpreted through the lens of racial politics. As Henig describes, opponents of reform can (and often do) leverage historic narratives about race and class in their favor by claiming that reform is just the latest grab for power by whites and minority middle-class allies.

But portfolio implementation doesn’t have to be racially polarizing. Like other citizens, minority adults are not just parents and grandparents, but also church members, residents of neighborhoods, teachers or friends or relatives of teachers, business owners or employees, taxpayers, and members of political parties. Multiple group memberships can lead any individual to mixed and competing views on school reform initiatives.

Any action that takes something away from a neighborhood, group of teachers, or even from businesses that once benefited from district patronage can affect the minority community’s calculus of support. Some perceived harms might be unavoidable, including closing schools, terminating the least effective teachers and principals, or reducing central office employment and contracting. But these should be enacted only when necessary and with explanations of the benefits—for example, a safer and more parent-friendly school will take the place of a closed one. Although such offsets will never be enough to overcome all opposition, some voters will be open to evidence about how much harm was really done and whether efforts have been made to mitigate it.

In Chicago, Newark, and New Orleans, elements of the minority community joined the opposition when they saw reform actions as harmful. In Chicago, many condemned the closing of high schools, with no provisions for the students set adrift. In Newark, the wholesale reduction of employment in the traditional schools and district central office, coupled with the hiring of high-priced consultants and the modest rate of improvement, convinced many that the reform did more harm than good. And in New Orleans, a substantial group of African-American voters believed that the financial harm done by firing thousands of teachers after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 undermined the economic base of the black community, hurting students more than the school improvements helped them.

Lesson 4. There are multiple ways to weaken the status quo coalition.

All coalitions include supporters who range in the intensity with which they support or benefit from their group’s position. This variability creates an opportunity to appeal to groups inclined to be opponents, but who may stand to benefit under an alternative regime.

In New York City, Chancellor Joel Klein appealed to younger teachers by giving principals the freedom to fill teacher vacancies without respect to seniority. In Denver, Superintendent Michael Bennet appealed to less senior teachers with a new program of performance-based pay. In California, state-appointed administrator Randy Ward made similar appeals in Oakland.

Reformers can also use negative messaging to put pressure on the status quo coalition and detach members from it. Local leaders need to be transparent about evidence of low productivity and wasteful spending. “Outing” waste doesn’t force reformers to fix all the misspending problems at once, but it creates a narrative that voters understand. It can also become someone else’s cause—for example, that of the city government or taxpayer groups—so that education leaders don’t have to work on the problem alone.

Few parents or business leaders know that disadvantaged children often fall further behind the longer they are in school or that schools serving the disadvantaged often have the least experienced teachers and suffer the highest rates of teacher turnover. Even district leaders may be unaware of how the concentration of senior teachers in schools serving more affluent children results in fewer resources going to schools serving low-income children. News media and public education activists tend to overlook these facts, but they represent wedge issues that can split off parent and civic groups from the dominant coalition, with its core union and allied parent constituencies.

Lesson 5. State intervention and foundation money only go so far.

State intervention (including mayoral takeovers, which must be authorized by the state) can strengthen some local actors and tilt the local balance of power in favor of change. It can temporarily neutralize the opposition’s power and enable the passage of policies that would otherwise have been impossible to put into place. In the end, these changes will only be permanent and sustainable if they find local political support.

State takeovers do not root out opposition once and for all. Even in post-Katrina New Orleans, where state officials at first worked free of opposition, local politics returned as quickly as the residents did.

Cities’ experiences with state-authorized mayoral control (in Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, and Cleveland) and with other forms of state takeover (in Philadelphia; Central Falls, Rhode Island; Prince George’s County, Maryland; and Compton, California) are revealing, in that the status quo remained unchanged (or bounced back after a little while) in at least as many cases as when school systems were transformed.

State takeovers can also crash. Oakland schools changed quickly under state-appointed administrator Randy Ward, but he was gone and many of his initiatives dismantled by the end of 2006. Ward was a good superintendent and smart public official, but he was an outsider in Oakland, with a constituency of one—the state superintendent.

In Newark, reform was imported: Authority came from the state, leadership from New York City, money from California, and experts from everywhere. Local political figures who, earlier, might have disagreed about many things found it to their advantage to unite against people and actions imposed from outside.

Foundation money, like Marc Zuckerberg’s $100 million investment in Newark (or the nearly half-billion dollars the Annenberg Foundation poured into U.S. cities in the early 1990s) can feed supporters, but it’s unlikely to create a stable reform coalition. Individuals and groups that can be “bought” are likely to switch allegiance again.

Huge foundation gifts meant to jump-start reform can fail if the funders have attached themselves to enthusiasts who ignore politics, move too quickly and dramatically, and run everything into the ground—or if local figures declare a bold reform and push it at great speed, but do not have the stature or political skill to sustain it.

The amounts of money available can also distort reformers’ priorities. They may buy consultants, statewide advocacy organizations, and a few new schools, but fail to build management capacity or deal with long-term structural issues that make or break reform.

Reformers need access to money, but grants should build capacities to improve schools and to found local organizations that will support school improvement, provide parent information, and gather evidence on results. Foundations should not pay school or district operating expenses or buy the district out of a financial crisis that is certain to reappear as soon as the outside money is gone.

Money may be better spent helping beneficiaries of reform—parent groups, principals and teachers who have gained greater freedom of action, and civic coalitions—organize and make their cases. Such groups are more effective in local politics than statewide or national groups that pursue agendas constructed elsewhere.

Lesson 6. Taking control creates new liabilities.

When the weaker party starts to win, some liabilities pass to it from its once-stronger adversary. Bystanders who tolerate a little dirty fighting by the underdog might not be so accepting of the same methods when the weaker party becomes the stronger one.

Supporters who join the reform side can lose confidence, leave the fight, and exercise their interest in education in other ways—for example, by sending their children to private schools or supporting the improvement of individual schools, as opposed to the whole system. Groups that get control of schools or other resources by way of the reform can abuse their opportunities or fail to perform. The political advantage can switch back and forth unless the now-stronger party gives its supporters reasons to stay engaged and the neutral audience reasons not to come out in support of its now-weaker adversary.

Reform leaders can survive failures by getting ahead of critics and refusing to defend the indefensible—for example, the misuse of funds by charter schools or discrimination in admissions. They must also understand that their allies who lead individual schools or make money providing services want to succeed on their own terms and might act in ways that undermine the reform. Some charter schools might try to cherry-pick students and offload expensive-to-educate ones. Some service providers might try to exclude competition so they can charge more and deliver less. Reform leaders can’t afford to assume that things will work out just because the “right” people are in charge.

Lesson 7: Prepare for the opponents’ likely comeback.

In most sports, the contest ends at a specified point. Not so for street fights, which can go on for a long time, with each side’s advantage ebbing and flowing. Reformers in many, if not all, communities are likely to experience setbacks and be forced back into the underdog role, at least occasionally.

In New York City today, the status quo coalition is resurgent—not so much because the reforms introduced by Klein and Michael Bloomberg didn’t work as promised, but because they annoyed and energized previously contented parties. Union opposition was a constant, but when middle-class parents became upset about having to share facilities with charter schools, the old coalition became much stronger. Mayor de Blasio had campaigned against co-locations and promised to cut charter schools’ access to public school facilities. Despite his power as mayor, however, pro-reform groups have been able to bring a new factor on their side—New York Governor Andrew Cuomo—to stymie efforts to roll back charter schools.

Like reformers, status quo groups can recruit new allies and raise money. As portfolio strategies have made headway in many cities, unions and their coalition partners have recruited new supporters both nationally and locally, sought intervention by courts and investigative agencies, and introduced national money into local politics.

Nothing can prevent opponents from using the resources they have, but reformers needn’t admit defeat as soon as the other side gains new assets. Counter-organization and outreach to groups that will benefit from reform (particularly parents of children doing least well in the conventional school system) can counter opponents’ initiatives. So can quick action to solve problems that opponents can capitalize on.

The Power of Political Thinking

Local actors can use the lessons learned in other cities to avoid their own political missteps. But sometimes, outsiders, including state leaders and philanthropy, are the ones driving local reform efforts. State officials need to understand that their intervention can tip the balance locally, but it can’t anoint anyone as the permanent winner. As for funders, they shouldn’t expect to get a permanent result by supporting a reformer on horseback or buying a political change with a one-time grant. Local politics will kick back.

As German sociologist Max Weber once noted, politics is the strong and slow boring of hard boards. It takes time and involves setbacks. Enemies return, and a side that seems on top today can be down tomorrow. Ultimately, success in K-12 reform depends as much on political savvy as on the strength of ideas.

Paul T. Hill is Founder of the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) and Research Professor at the University of Washington Bothell. Ashley Jochim is a research analyst at CRPE.

Last Updated


Notify Me When Education Next

Posts a Big Story

Business + Editorial Office

Program on Education Policy and Governance
Harvard Kennedy School
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone (617) 496-5488
Fax (617) 496-4428

For subscription service to the printed journal
Phone (617) 496-5488

Copyright © 2024 President & Fellows of Harvard College