Smart federalism + real choice = the way forward

In my recent post on the end of geography I described some of the Promised Land of portfolio management governance, as explained by Rick Hess and Olivia Meeks in their paper for Fordham’s recent symposium on education governance. (At the time I was not aware of CRPE’s portfolio convention in Seattle—more on their initiative at another time.) The idea is that the brave new world of education governance should be driven by function not geography. The implications are enormous.

How do we get to the Promised Land and what can we do to smooth the course?

How we get to the Promised Land—and pay for the trip, lacking manna from heaven—and what we can do to smooth the course is the subject of this post. And some good answers to those questions come to us via the Koret Task Force on K-12 Education, and its report, Choice and Federalism. I mentioned the report last winter, in a slippery slope back to mediocrity essay, following the House Education and Workforce Committee’s states’ rights proposals for ESEA reauthorization. I wondered then whether states’ rights were “being invoked to cover up the very inequities—the `soft bigotry of low expectations’—that No Child Left Behind was determined to remedy.” And I was heartened to know that Koret—which includes some very smart people, including our own Checker Finn, Task Force Chair—shared some of those concerns.

But the important message of the Koret report—at least, the summary of it written by member Grover Whitehurst, in the Spring edition of Education Next—is that we need a “fundamentally new approach” to education governance. While Hess and Meeks discussed the merits of a decentralized system of education service delivery, Koret shows how we might reform existing governance structures, with smart federalism, choice, and competition, to help make that happen.

As Whitehurst points out, we’ve already tried top-down accountability (e.g., Clinton, Bush, Obama) and devolving power to states and districts (the failure of which, says Whitehurst, “motivated increased federal involvement in the first place”). What Koret proposes is a third way, which, ironically, calls for going back to our roots and invoking “two principles that have served the nation exceedingly well throughout its history: federalism and choice.” It is the combination of these two all-American and, if history be the guide, hugely successful governance principles, in the context of twenty-first century demands, that makes this report such a powerful document.

Koret avoids the Manichaeism of the local control versus federal control debate and invokes memories of our uber-practical and well-educated revolutionaries of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the folks who designed a governance system remarkably adept at promoting and protecting individual rights while tightly constraining the federal government. Koret calls it “fiscal federalism” and says it’s characterized by two basic beliefs:

  • Government services are most efficiently delivered closest to the taxpayers/consumers receiving them;
  • Competition among the service providers improves the services.

The challenge, as Whitehurst notes, is that “lack of geographical mobility for large segments of the population undermines the competitive pressure that low-performing schools and school districts would otherwise expect to face.”

We could intervene from above, says Whitehurst, which is what we’ve tried to do the last fifteen years, with little success. Instead, Koret proposes that “funding must follow the student.”

Part of the answer is "backpack funding," where the dollars follow the student.

Thus, if you tear down the geographic boundaries, as Hess and Meeks suggest, and allow education service providers the freedom to contract with schools, school districts, states, and other governing bodies, you will, argues Whitehurst, “create a marketplace for schooling that will evolve toward greater responsiveness to what parents want, will be more innovative, and will become more productive.” But you’ve got to resolve the “geographical mobility” problem. Part of the answer is "backpack funding," where the dollars follow the student. But Koret also recomends that that funding be "weighted" so that "needy students [receive more] than traditional distribution schemes."

Of crucial importance in this new governance model, however, is redefining the federal role, which has sucked so much air out of our education governance room. (The Ed Next story has a handy chart, listing all the federal K-12 expenditures in 2010, by program, including ESEA ($48.4 billion), College and Career Ready Students ($14.4 billion), Native Hawaiian Student Education ($33 million), and a couple dozen other federal initiatives.) Koret would severely curtail the federal role, by defining four specific duties for our national government:

  • Creating and disseminating information on school performance in each classroom and program effectiveness, including information on individual student performance;
  • Enforcing civil rights laws;
  • Providing financial support to high need students;
  • Enhancing competition among providers.

These are such clear-headed and practical suggestions that it seems odd we have not embraced them before. But the beauty of the four principles is how they balance the duties of the federal government to ensure a free market and its duties to safeguard our individual rights, including the right to equal access to an education. The Koret folks have managed to pinpoint the greatest opportunity and greatest challenge of our age: “Market-based competition cannot exist in public education unless the consumers of public education can choose where to be schooled.”

Naturally, the devil is in the details (and the Koret report has them), but it is so very refreshing to encounter a set of principles that make both practical and historical sense that I’m happy just to see the Promised Land—that shining city in the cloud.

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