Is education reform losing something in the translation?

Member outreach coordinator, New Jersey School Boards Association
Ray Pinney

Guest blogger Ray Pinney is member outreach coordinator for the New Jersey School Boards Association. In this post, which originally appeared on the NJSBA BoardBlog, he reflects on Fordham and CAP’s Rethinking Education Governance conference and what governance reform means for the Garden State.

After I graduated from college, I took the summer off and backpacked
through Europe because I figured that it might be the last time I could
travel without time constraints (of course, I was right about this).
 Not being able to speak the native languages provided some funny and
not-so-funny incidents. In any case, I am sure most of you have been in
a situation where the discussion is hampered by the two people not
speaking the same language. It can be frustrating at times and shows
how simple things can become so complicated.

A few weeks ago, I described an education reform program I attended,  Rethinking Education Governance for the Twenty-First Century,
which was sponsored by the Fordham Institute.  The presenters were for
the most part academics with impressive credentials. For those who
have been part of public education for a while, some of these concepts
may just turn your world upside down. That is because they are
seriously considering “rethinking” education, not just tweaking it.

Most of you know that New Jersey’s commissioner and governor both
want to change teacher tenure and teacher evaluations, as well as
provide more charter school opportunities for parents. What was
fascinating about the program at the Fordham Institute was the thrust
of the discussion: that the next reform we need to consider involves
changing how school districts are governed. By that they mean changing
the role of the school board member and the superintendent. The belief
is that the state (or another single entity, such as a city) should
have the primary authority over the school system and that building
principals are given broad authority and also held accountable for
academic achievement.

Why give the state the primary authority?  The belief is that we have
a system with too many governing entities, both formal (local boards,
state education departments and the federal government) and informal
(such as teacher unions) that influence public education and make it
hard to reform the system. The lines of responsibility are not clear, so
it is hard to hold any one entity accountable.

If state control is not feasible, then mayoral-controlled (notice I
used the word controlled not appointed–there is a difference) school
districts are another school improvement option that seems to resonate
with the Fordham program speakers. Once again, the concept involves
concentrating authority in a single entity to avoid school reform
roadblocks.

While I believe that tenure reform and reforming the way we evaluate
teachers is needed and would help students in all districts, I am not
convinced that changing our governance structure will yield any
benefits.

There are major hurdles to shifting
authority from local districts to the state in New Jersey. For one
thing: can you change the governance structure without changing the
funding system?  In New Jersey, in 2009-2010, the local property tax
levy accounted for 62.1  percent of public school funding and state aid
made up 34.7 percent of public school revenue that same year. 
(Source: Rankings & Estimates: Rankings of the States 2010,
National Education Association 2010)  Why should the state have the
authority when the local citizens are the primary funders of
education?  Don’t they deserve a say too?  In the community in which I
live, the local property tax-payers fund almost 90 percent of the cost
of education while the state government pays 7 percent and the federal
government 1 percent. No disrespect to Secretary of Education Arne
Duncan or Acting Commissioner Cerf, but their influence in the public
education in my community far outweighs the financial support they
provide.  One of the key presenters suggested that the states pick up
most of the tab for public education and I thought to myself “That
ain’t going to happen in New Jersey! Let’s discuss policy choices that
are at least feasible.”

As for mayoral-controlled boards, one of the presenters mentioned
that mayoral-controlled districts don’t always reap great results
because the mayors sometimes lose elections and some mayors are better
than others.  This seems so obvious to me:  I have known many mayors
over my life and I am not sure any really had an education focus.

My other issue with these proposals is that I do favor a system of
governance that has checks and balances and I do not particularly like
systems that give the authority to one person or entity.

In New Jersey, most of our districts have the same governance
structure.  They have a school board and a superintendent who lead the
district.  There are districts located a few miles apart  with very
different levels of achievement:  one district has outstanding academic
results, while the other  is struggling mightily. If their governance
is the same, then maybe governance is not the issue, because in the
vast majority of districts, the governance system is yielding great
results. When we look at these two districts, usually a dramatic
difference rests with the economic conditions; while we can never use
that as an excuse for low achievement or an obstacle to
well-thought-out education reforms, it remains a factor in school
performance that must be addressed.  So, maybe governance is not the
problem at all.

In any case, what we need to be aware of is that these discussions
are influencing state political leaders.  They may be speaking a
‘different language’ than most of us in the education community, but not
much is being lost in the translation.

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