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Big Changes, Wrong Reasons

May 08, 2012 By Michael J. Diedrich, Policy Associate

So the Philadelphia school system is breaking up. Deeply in debt, they're going to close forty schools in 2013, and six a year after that until 2017. The central office will no longer manage schools; instead, “achievement networks” of 20-25 schools apiece will handle the administrative tasks usually performed by the district. This dramatic reorganization was announced in conjunction with a budget plan. The big shocker? The reorganization doesn't actually save any money.

Instead, it “outsources” kids to charter schools, so that about 40% of the Philadelphia student population will be in charters. Now, if there's one thing we should have learned about school choice by now, it's that triggering a massive exodus from the traditional system isn't good. Any free seats in existing charters will be filled up immediately, leaving a great many kids looking for a new school. The people starting those new schools won't, for the most part, be educators passionate about innovation. They're much more likely to be profiteers, looking to scoop up easy public money in return for quickly slapping together something that looks like a school.

Again, this doesn't save the district any money, it just moves the money elsewhere. The way it was rolled out, however, links it to the district's budget problems. This is a particularly egregious example of a tendency in today's self-described reformers to use distractions and unconnected crises to advance their agendas.

I'm not talking about the changes made by districts in response to actual budget problems—changes like the four-day school week or spring break in February—but about changes using some other issue as cover.

The budget excuse was used in Wisconsin to justify stripping public sector workers of bargaining rights, even though they'd already agreed to the cuts needed to keep the budget afloat. It's been deployed elsewhere to justify the use of so-called “value-added” measurements to determine teacher pay or retention based on test scores. What's more, it was part of the giant yanking of strings known as Race to the Top.

Race to the Top, you may recall, was (and continues to be) an Obama administration competitive grant program. Basically, states would apply for billions of dollars in federal grant money, in exchange for which they had to undertake certain reforms, many of which fall into the more-standards-more-testing framework. With state education budgets in crisis condition, the hope of federal money was too good to refuse.

There was, of course, a catch. States had to implement the reforms before they applied for the grants. The result? Many states passed major education policy changes, only to “lose” the competition and get no federal money for it. Even the states that won saw RTTT money dwarfed by stimulus money (and this doesn't even get into the relatively minor share of state education budgets that comes from federal dollars).

Time and again, we've seen this play out. The looming specter of budget problems is invoked, and yet the changes that come along don't actually do anything to fix the budget problems. Sometimes, they even come with hidden costs and only make matters worse. It's time for that to stop.

If something has educational merit, let's see the case made in the full light of day. Let's see active solicitation of teachers and school leaders in the creation of these policies. Let's see attempts to win the support of the people who will have to implement reform, not just attempts to coerce or frighten them into it. Let's see a recognition that there may be more than one solution to a given problem, and that some problems aren't as severe as they're made out to be.

This will require reformers to actually be open to critiques from teachers and their unions. It will require an understanding from those who claim the mantle of reform that they will not necessarily be trusted. There is deep suspicion, fueled by what we hear about groups like ALEC, that what starts as “Pay great teachers more” will lead to Wisconsin-style destruction of bargaining rights or widespread use of vouchers in place of a genuine public education.

Teachers' unions, too, must be seen offering proactive solutions and be willing to talk with reformers. Ultimately, I would hope that teachers will lead the reform movement from within schools. I think that's much more likely to produce good changes for the right reasons rather than simply big changes for the wrong reasons.

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  • Irv says:

    May 15, 2012 at 10:08 am

    The justification of Charters is that they offer a specialty and “better” prepared students. With our high stakes testing results we have seen that they perform no better than the majority of the public schools. The problem is they act like private schools with enrolment interviews and criteria. So where do all of the average to lower skilled students go? The public school.
    My buddy teaches in a private school in Australia. He observed that the American education system is quickly following their kind of system where well off parents send their children to private or charter schools. Those that can’t afford to, or don’t care to, send their child to a public school. This creates an education system of the haves vrs. the have nots.

    Gone are the days of families being able to rely on public education as a stepping stone to move up the social/economic ladder.