Got Questions About Education Reform? I’ve Heard Them All.
BY David Osborne December 22, 2017
As I travel around the country on a 24-city book tour, giving talks and meeting with education reform leaders and activists, I get a lot of questions. I thought it might be useful to answer a few of them in print. These are a set I received in Oakland, California, at an event sponsored by GO Public Schools, Educate78, and the Rogers Family Foundation.
When will cities face the brutal reality of failing schools, name that as the reality, and use that as the impetus for change?Some cities—Denver, New Orleans, the District of Columbia, Indianapolis, Memphis and others—have done so. It requires strong leaders, and they must win the inevitable political battles that result—something that is not always easy. Replacing failing schools with high-quality schools inevitably means some people will lose their jobs, and that usually drives the teachers union to oppose such changes. Some community leaders will also oppose replacing schools in their neighborhoods, even though the new school operators have outstanding track records. Reformers need to win the resulting political battles with unions and work with the communities involved to help parents help pick the replacement operator they prefer. Sometimes cities won’t improve without outside influence. Bureaucracy is slow to change, and patronage politics runs deep in many urban districts. In New Orleans, Newark and Camden, New Jersey, the wake-up call came when the state took over the local school district (or most of its schools, in New Orleans) because of perpetually failing schools. People don’t like losing local control, so even if the state improves the schools, a takeover is often met with hostility. But in all three cities, the reforms have won many parents over, because the resulting schools are so much better than those they replaced.
Community engagement and parent empowerment are key factors to support the development of our schools. How do they fit in?Systems of choice and charter schools have helped empower parents in many cities. In these systems, the tax dollars usually follow the students, so parents have some leverage with the schools, since they can move their children and the dollars will follow. Many charter schools also have a history of encouraging parent engagement. Home visits, regular parents’ nights at school, and other ways to involve parents were initiated in charter schools and then adopted by district schools, in cities such as Washington, D.C., and Denver. Many parent empowerment organizations, such as The Memphis Lift and Stand for Children, have helped organize and give voice to parents who support charter schools and school choice. These organizations play an important role in giving parents political influence and allowing their voices to be heard. In Newark, where more than 30 percent of the students are in charters, Mayor Ras Baraka was anti-charter until local charter supporters registered more than 3,000 parents of charter school students to vote. Baraka then decided to back “unity slates” for the District Advisory Board, which will become the school board when control returns to Newark citizens. Newark had some of the strongest charters in the nation, but without mobilizing charter parents, charter advocates would not have been successful in winning seats on the board.
What might be the unintended consequences of this 21st century strategy?Any idea can be poorly done. In states that don’t have strong charter laws, authorizers aren’t held accountable to anyone but parents. Unfortunately, some parents are happy if a school is warm and nurturing and will leave their children in a school where kids are falling further behind grade level every year. But if the kids aren’t learning, we’re cheating them, denying them future opportunities. We’re also cheating the taxpayers, who fund public schools to produce an educated citizenry and workforce. So charter authorizers need to hold schools accountable. That means vetting applications thoroughly before giving charters out, then replacing schools that fail to meet their performance goals by large margins. In states where authorizers abdicate this role, charter schools don’t perform much better than district schools. School systems need both autonomy and accountability. Also, places with weak authorizers or multiple authorizers usually can’t resolve the equity issues that arise in any school system. Do special needs, low-income and kids learning English have an equal shot at high-quality schools, for instance? Only if authorizers ensure they do by creating common-enrollment systems, workable funding systems for special education, services for those who don’t speak English and publicly funded transportation to school. This has happened in places with strong authorizers, such as New Orleans, D.C., and Denver, but not in cities with multiple authorizers or district authorizers too preoccupied with operating schools—with rowing—to meet their responsibilities to steer.
Is common enrollment for district and charter schools required for this change?Ideally, yes. As noted above, enrollment is an equity issue. Without a common-enrollment system, parents with more education, time and know-how can get their kids into better schools. In 2011, Denver Public Schools rolled out its common-enrollment system, “SchoolChoice.” Before then, parents who wanted their children to attend a school other than their neighborhood school had to research and apply to multiple schools. The district had more than 60 enrollment systems for its own schools alone, plus many more for charter schools. Community organizations such as Metro Organizations for People pushed for a common-enrollment system on equity grounds. Many low-income parents didn’t have the time or language skills to fill out multiple applications, and they found the previous process intimidating, so they were less likely to apply. SchoolChoice has clearly increased equity, leading to a jump in the percentage of low-income students and English-language learners attending in-demand schools. Without common-enrollment systems, parents and schools can more easily circumvent the “required” procedures for applying to certain schools. In Denver, a 2010 study proved that 60 percent of those whose kids attended an elementary school outside their neighborhood got them in through “unofficial” means, such as baking brownies for the principal. Common enrollment put a stop to that.
Is transportation required in what you call '21st century school systems'?If we want equal opportunity, yes. There is no true equity unless all students have equal access to high quality schools. If parents can’t get their kids to school each day, they’re going to send them to the closest school, which means they don’t really have a choice. Those who have the means will take their kids to a better school and those who don’t will stay with what’s geographically close. In systems of choice, there should also be a variety of school models—different schools for different kids. Without transportation, this won’t work as well. Imagine if a student wants to go to a STEM school, but the school in his or her neighborhood is a dual-language immersion school. That student needs transportation to the STEM school—otherwise, the student is forced to attend an educational model that isn’t engaging for him or her.
How do you reconcile choice and the inclusion of 'non-choosers' (kids without advocates and families without agency)?Most families want their children to have the best education they can, but some lack the resources, “know-how” or wherewithal to get their kids into good schools. A few are simply not paying attention, for one reason or another. In 21st century systems, authorizers and/or school boards are freed of the daily tasks of running schools, so they can focus on steering, which includes ensuring equal access to quality schools. In districts such as Denver, New Orleans, Washington, D.C., and Newark, the implementation of common-enrollment systems has helped level the playing fields so that all students have equal access. (Soon Indianapolis will follow suit.) After implementing common-enrollment systems, districts and authorizers must provide good information about schools in multiple languages, and they must create centers where parents can go to learn about the schools, as the Recovery School District did in New Orleans. Then they should reach out to families who aren’t reaching out to them, to make sure they get the information and help they need to make good choices. Many have not yet met this challenge. If districts or authorizers fail to do this, outside organizations can step into the breach. In New Orleans, a nonprofit called EdNavigator now contracts with a series of large employers to help their employees make good decisions about their children’s schooling and deal with any problems that come up involving their schools. Finally, choice, competition and school accountability help all students, even if their families are not actively choosing. Schools that have to compete often work hard to improve. And if districts and authorizers replace failing schools with stronger operators, as they do in 21st century systems, the students in those failing schools benefit.
There are other districts that have improved their academic performance using a totally different strategy (like Long Beach, California, and Union City, New Jersey). Why shouldn’t our district just use that approach?These districts have not improved as fast as New Orleans, Washington, D.C., or Denver. In addition, they have required political stability for a long time. Long Beach has had two superintendents over the past 25 years, the second of which was the first’s deputy. It took five years for reform efforts to begin to show progress in student learning, but the board and superintendent stuck with it. In Union City, profiled in David Kirp’s excellent book, "Improbable Scholars," the leadership of the mayor (who was an important force for improvement) and district also remained consistent for more than two decades. Under such conditions, even centralized bureaucracies can make significant progress. Union City, after more than 20 years, reached roughly the state average in performance. But New Orleans, with a far tougher population, did so in less than a decade. If your district can afford to go more slowly, can guarantee political stability for two decades and cannot use charter and charter-like schools for some reason, by all means emulate Long Beach and Union City. Their children are much better off after 25 years of steady system improvement.
What if a city has too many buildings for the number of schools appropriate to the number of students it has?There are a number of alternatives. Perhaps the best is to lease empty buildings to charter operators, who are often desperate for buildings they can afford. Some districts, such as Denver, Washington, D.C., and New York City, have also shared buildings between district and charter schools, leasing one wing or one floor of a building. This brings in district revenue while helping the charter schools. The final alternative is to close half-empty schools and sell the surplus buildings. But this is disruptive to students and families, and it is politically difficult. It might also leave a district with too few buildings if enrollment later grew. Districts should note that D.C., New Orleans and Denver are all growing districts. An embrace of charter schools and choice has turned out to be the best strategy for increasing enrollment.
How does a district close schools while also pursuing new models and approaches?Closing schools is always tough, but ultimately, if we let failing schools continue to operate, we hurt kids. So districts should engage with school communities, including parents, to demonstrate that the school is not educating their children effectively and show them other operators that might come in to run the school. The goal is not to close schools put to replace them with better schools. In New Orleans, D.C. and Denver, the districts/authorizers have learned to bring in two or three potential operators and let the parents talk to them about their school models. They also encourage parents to visit the operators’ existing schools. Then they give parents a say in the decision about which operator comes into their neighborhood and educates their children. States with strong charter laws and funding tend to attract better charter management organizations, which often have more experience with replicating schools and taking over failing schools. So the quality of state legislation is also important.
Can you share a few examples of similar transitions in other parts of government that are farther along, and how you know that it has “worked?”Contracting of public services is very common in today’s world. Head Start programs contract with nonprofit organizations to operate their centers. Many human services are contracted to nonprofit organizations. Cities contract with for-profit firms to build and maintain their roads, bridges and highways. Garbage collection is often contracted out to competing private companies, as are myriad other public services. Consider our largest public programs, Medicare, Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act. All use public funds but private service delivery, by private doctors and hospitals. Indeed, the majority of publicly funded services are now delivered by private organizations. Public education is well behind the curve, too often stuck with an Industrial Era model in the Information Age.
When our district granted more autonomy to principals, it worked for some leaders but some didn’t use their autonomy well. What kind of training and preparation do school leaders need for this to be effective? And what do districts that have made this transition do with principals that don’t want to or can’t make the switch?Leaders of all organizations need leadership and management training, something school principals rarely get. We also need to make principals’ jobs easier by using multiple school leaders, as so many charter schools do: one for academics, another for operations and sometimes a third for culture and discipline. And we need to provide mentors and coaches to principals who struggle with autonomy. [pullquote position="left"]If a school or program is new, giving the leader(s) enough preparation time is critical. When starting a school, they need time to plan and to build a leadership team well before the school opens. In Indianapolis, an organization called The Mind Trust provides financial and other support to leaders planning new school models, typically for a year or two. The district provides at least a year of planning time for the schools after the application is approved but prior to the opening of the school. Asking strong school leaders to share best practices with others can also be effective. The superintendent of Denver Public Schools (DPS), Tom Boasberg, has hired dozens of people from charters and worked hard to spread successful charter practices to district-operated schools. For example, DPS brought in charter leaders from successful networks such as Uncommon Schools and KIPP to lead professional development for DPS principals. The district also gave aspiring school leaders a year to work in a strong charter school—and to visit outstanding schools around the nation—to learn how it’s done. By 2015, 84 percent of Denver teachers rated their principals “effective” or “very effective,” a big improvement. Though turnover of principals in low-income schools was a problem for years, by 2016–17 it had slowed dramatically. Principals who don’t want to operate in an environment of school autonomy can always move on to other positions, as teachers or in central administration—or with a different district or business. Most Americans lack lifetime job security, after all, and there’s no reason principals should be an exception. Finally, principals who fail in an environment of autonomy must be removed, for the sake of the children.
More autonomy for principals has actually increased the cost of some services in our district, like with centralized food service. How should a district balance the need for efficiency through centralized services with this desire for autonomy?Services that are efficient but not effective are a waste of time. Most teachers, for instance, think the professional development their districts force on them is a waste of time. Making it more efficient would be no help at all. We should pursue the most cost-effective methods to educate children. Often centralized food services do not provide the nutritious meals that school leaders want for their children—instead loading them up with carbohydrates and sugar. If we let school leaders choose their food services, we’re likely to get better nutrition, leading to more learning. In addition, competition between food service providers can lower costs. But if a district contracts out food services competitively, it can also get those lower costs. If school leaders are satisfied with the quality of the food, a centrally managed food service can work—though the power to go elsewhere does help school leaders get what they want from food service providers. Even in areas where a monopoly clearly offers efficiency advantages, such as school busing, those advantages can sometimes be illusory. Before Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans used one bus system, which was centrally managed. But there was so much corruption and inefficiency that it was quite expensive—some bus drivers used their district credit cards to sell gas to truck drivers. Today each school manages its own busing, which should be more expensive. But the system spends the same percentage of its funds on transportation as it did before the reforms. A few services may need to remain centralized monopolies, but most do not. Forty years ago, the school district in Edmonton, Alberta, figured out how to decentralize district services, and their model has been used widely since, by governments at all levels. Most central services are turned into public enterprises and capitalized, but their monopoly is withdrawn, so schools can go elsewhere to purchase the service. Then the funds are distributed to the schools, and the new service enterprises must earn their revenue by selling to the schools. This works like a charm, and every district should do it. To learn more about it, see my chapter on this strategy at http://reinventgov.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/09.0EnterpriseManagement.pdf.
How have districts worked collaboratively with unions on this strategy?For the most part, they haven’t. Twenty-first century systems are decentralized, giving power back to the schools and the people who run them. As a result, they take power away from the unions. While some charter schools have chosen to unionize, most have not. Even in charter-lite models, if teachers in a school can vote to leave the collective bargaining agreement, they often do—which means there’s little incentive for the union to support that model either. The unions have publicly supported teacher-run schools, an educational model used in both district and charter schools, because it increases teacher professionalism and teacher voice. In Minnesota, the teachers union created a charter authorizer, primarily to authorize teacher-run schools. And in Springfield, Massachusetts, the teachers union agreed to participate in an Empowerment Zone Partnership with the state, which is overseen by a board that now authorizes 10 of Springfield’s schools. Four of the members are appointed by the state, three are local leaders. The union agreed to a longer school day and slightly higher pay, in part because the Partnership offered to require leadership councils at each zone school, with four teachers elected by the teaching staff and one appointed by the principal. The councils work with the principal to make decisions, and they must approve his or her annual plans for the school. (For more information, see our report on Springfield at http://www.progressivepolicy.org/issues/education/springfield-empowerment-zone-partnership/.) Springfield’s example offers a route other districts could take to convince unions to support 21st century strategies. Most teachers want more say in how their schools run, and sometimes their unions will back reforms they would otherwise oppose if they increase teacher power. Sadly, however, the statewide union in Massachusetts is fighting against a bill to allow other districts to do what Springfield has.
An original version of this post appeared at the Progressive Policy Institute as David Osborne Answers Frequently Asked Education Reform Questions.
David Osborne is the director of the Reinventing America’s Schools Project at the Progressive Policy Institute. As of September 2017 (the 25th anniversary of the opening of the first charter school), his new book on education reform has been released, "Reinventing’s America’s Schools: Creating a 21st Century Education System." Osborne is the author or co-author of seven books, including, "The ...