Chartering the future

The traditional urban public school system is broken, and it cannot be fixed.

It must be replaced.

Given urban districts’ unblemished record of failure over generations, you’d think these statements would be widely accepted and represent the core of the education-reform strategy. But somehow, just about everyone working in this area assumes that the traditional school district is essential and immortal—that because of its age and standing, it must be the focus of reform. Few recognize the anachronism of a model created by historical circumstances—mass immigration, industrialization, and Progressive Era-idealism—rather than today’s social realities and educational priorities.

Where I Teach
Chartering provides a blueprint for the urban school system of the future.
Photo by Todd Ehlers.

I am convinced that the district is not part of the solution. It is the problem. Persistent low performance is the natural consequence of this institution that our predecessors placed at the heart of urban public schooling. No city will ever realize a renaissance in K-12 education so long as the district continues as the dominant, default delivery system.

The blueprint for the urban school system of the future can be found in charter schooling.

Chartering’s systemic innovations have already shown that the district need not be the exclusive operator of all public schools. A wide array of organizations can deliver a public education. Chartering has also demonstrated that there can be variety and churn within public education: Diverse new schools can be continually created, failing schools can be closed, and great schools can be replicated and expanded.

What remains to be seen is whether these revolutionary characteristics can form the core of a comprehensive and coherent new urban public education system. As I explain in my new book, The Urban School System of the Future: Applying the Principles and Lessons of Chartering  (Roman & Littlefield Education), they can.

The key is making use of a government reform embraced by other sectors for at least twenty years.  The basic idea, proposed by David Osborne and Ted Gaebler in their seminal Reinventing Government and advanced by other experts like former Indianapolis mayor Stephen Goldsmith, is developing an “entrepreneurial government” that ensures that important things get accomplished while allowing others to do most of the day-to-day work. The government “steers” the ship, while others (primarily nonprofits) “row.” The implication for urban education is that city governments should manage portfolios of schools operated by others.

But in order to realize the full benefits of this new system, we need a drastic change in perspective, a two-step intellectual leap that few, even among the most daring reformers, have been willing to take.

First, we must see chartering not as a sector and not even as a system but as the system for urban education’s future. The systemic practices it has introduced into public education must be the playbook for how urban school portfolios are managed. Second, we must accept that the full flourishing of this new system requires the permanent demotion and the potential cessation of the district.

The Urban School System of the Future
The Urban School System of the Future is now available from Amazon.

These two intertwined ideas are the logical extension of the best thinking about structural education reform (by leaders like Ted Kolderie and Paul Hill) and the most exciting on-the-ground developments over the last two decades.

Charter schooling has proven that districts can no longer claim a proprietary right to public education. Now, in most cities, a diverse assortment of nonprofits operates public schools. Moreover, chartering has shown that the key practices of chartering identified by and advocated in my book can work in public education. Every year, a wide array of schools is started in America’s cities. Authorizers are closing charters not delivering on their promises. Great single-site charters are adding grades and campuses, and the nation’s best charter-management organizations are replicating their successful models and serving more and more students.

These ideas have spread beyond the charter sector, having been put to work in Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit, and other cities. Importantly, a growing number of district leaders have begun talking about “a system of schools” instead of a “school system.” And in the cases of New York City and New Orleans— thanks to the extraordinary leadership, respectively, of former chancellor Joel Klein and former state superintendent Paul Pastorek—nearly all of the pieces have been put in place, and the results are remarkable.

Despite this progress, most leaders in the establishment and reform community still fail to recognize that chartering represents a systemic solution. When speaking of a “system of schools,” their emphasis is on schools not system. Many believe that the key is empowering principals: They prioritize site-based management. But this is a small piece of the puzzle. It is possible for a city to have completely independent but dreadfully low-performing schools. School-based autonomy is ultimately meaningless to the system unless there are sensible, consistent consequences for different levels of performance.

But the most portentous error made by even those sympathetic to these arguments is the assumption that the district must be the central actor moving forward. Those who have written in support of “portfolio management” invariably assume that the district will become the manager. In the cities where this strategy has taken root, the district leads.

But the district was created to be a monopoly owner and operator of schools, not an impartial assessor of schools run by others. The district’s longstanding job has been codified in laws and regulations. As importantly, the district has developed innumerable beliefs and hoary practices to support its old line of work. We can’t expect a century-old organization to completely change its fundamental nature. No one would try to turn General Electric into General Mills.

Moreover, the urban district is quite simply a failed organization. It has done an astonishingly poor job at its primary task, running schools. Why in the world would we think an organization that’s extraordinarily bad at its job would be great at another? The work of revitalizing urban education is far too important to give the district the central role.

The answer is to create from scratch a new entity that will manage a city’s schools portfolio. The replacement must be a new “system of schools,” governed by the revolutionary practices of chartering.

The replacement must be a new “system of schools,” governed by the revolutionary practices of chartering.

Though this new system will require the demotion of the district and the development of a new citywide education authority, neither shift will be as dramatic or disruptive as it may first appear. The district will merely become one of a range of coequal providers. It will still be able to operate schools, but it won’t hold a privileged place in the landscape. The new system’s guiding principles will apply to the district’s schools in the same way as other providers’ schools.

The new authority, let’s call it the Office of the Chancellor of City Schools, will be a relatively small entity. It will neither operate nor authorize schools. It will execute the system’s principles—diversity of options, new starts, replications/expansions, and closures—acting as the citywide “portfolio manager” of schools.

In many ways, the new system will look and behave like the healthy industries so common in the private sector. Quality, consumer choice, a wide array of alternatives, and innovation will play much larger roles than in today’s district-dominated arrangement. However, the system will not be a freewheeling marketplace. There will be public management and public oversight, and it will carefully preserve the key elements of public education, such as universal access, open enrollment, and nondiscrimination.

Once operational, this new system of schools will not only deliver improved results, it will also feel extraordinarily familiar: For years, other critically important city government functions such as welfare services, urban development, public housing, and more have been carried out by community-based organizations.

Through these changes we’ll soon come to realize just how anomalous and deeply flawed our previous urban public school system actually was.

Andy Smarick is author of The Urban School System of the Future: Applying the Principles and Lessons of Chartering (Roman & Littlefield Education), a partner at Bellwether Education Partners, and a Bernard Lee Schwartz senior policy fellow with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. 

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