We Won!



By 09/30/2010

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I have no idea why a bunch of ed reformers are so gloomy.  Matt has already observed how Rick Hess and Mike Petrilli can’t seem to enjoy the moment when ed reform ideas go mainstream.  Now Liam Julian is joining the poopy parade, lamenting that the new crop of naive reformers are doomed to fail just as past ones have, and “it never works out.” And continuing the gloomy theme, Rick is worrying that school choice (in the form of vouchers) over-promised and under-delivered, losing the support of people like Sol Stern.

That may be, but as a graduate student observed to me today, choice (in the form of vouchers) may have lost Sol Stern, but choice (in the form of charters) just gained Oprah, the Today Show, and the Democratic Party platform.    Overall, he thought that was a pretty good trade, especially since he had to look up who Sol Stern was.

Let’s review.  It is now commonly accepted among mainstream elites — from Oprah to Matt Lauer to Arne Duncan — that simply pouring more money into the public school system will not produce the results we want.  It is now commonly accepted that the teacher unions have been a significant barrier to school improvement by protecting ineffective teachers and opposing meaningful reforms.  It is now commonly accepted that parents should have a say in where their children go to school and this choice will push traditional public schools to improve.  It is now commonly accepted that we have to address the incentives in the school system to recruit, retain, and motivate the best educators.

These reform ideas were barely a twinkle in Ronald Reagan’s eye three decades ago and are now broadly accepted across both parties and across the ideological spectrum.  This is a huge accomplishment and rather than being all bummed out that everyone else now likes the band that I thought was cool before anyone ever heard of it, we should be amazed at how much good music there is out there.

We won!  At least we’ve won the war of ideas.  Our ideas for school reform are now the ones that elites and politicians are considering and they have soundly rejected the old ideas of more money, more money, and more money.

Now that I’ve said that, I have to acknowledge that winning the war of ideas is nowhere close to winning the policy war.  As I’ve written before, the teacher unions are becoming like the tobacco industry.  No one accepts their primary claims anymore, but that doesn’t mean they don’t continue to be powerful and that people don’t continue to smoke.  The battle is turning into a struggle over the correct design and implementation of the reform ideas that are now commonly accepted.  And the unions have shown that they are extremely good at blocking, diluting, or co-opting the correct design and implementation of reforms.

Rick Hess correctly demonstrated how important design and implementation are almost two decades ago in his books, Spinning Wheels and Revolution at the Margins.   And it is always useful for him and others to remind reformers of the dangers that lurk in those union-infested waters.  But for a moment can’t we just bask in the glow of our intellectual victory — even if our allies are a new crop of naive reformers?




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