For progressive school reform, look South

If you ask education experts to name cutting-edge spots for reform, they are likely to list Washington; New York; New Orleans; and maybe Denver. These are certainly the cities whose systems and superintendents have gotten the lion's share of press attention recently.

But let me suggest an alternative group: Montgomery County, MD; Fairfax County, VA; and Wake County, NC. There are good reasons to believe that these county-wide systems and their peers south of the Mason-Dixon Line are going to be the first to show the break-through progress that has eluded the big urban districts to date.

That hopeful forecast comes from reading Leading for Equity: The Pursuit of Excellence in Montgomery County Schools, by Stacey M. Childress, Denis P. Doyle, and David A. Thomas. The book admits to being a "celebration" of the progress made in this 140,000-pupil system in the DC suburbs under the decade-long leadership of superintendent Jerry Weast, including rising test scores and dramatic increases in the number of students (particularly poor and minority students) taking and passing Advanced Placement courses.

Much of the story comes down to smart implementation of reform ideas that have been around forever, such as boosting teachers' "instructional capacity," and rethinking the use of time; it helps that this mostly-wealthy district is reasonably well managed and staffed. But what's most provocative is its approach to equity: It unabashedly embraced a Robin Hood strategy of taking resources from the richest parts of the county and driving them to the poorest. (About a quarter of the system's students are poor; close to half are African-American or Hispanic.) In the affluent "Green Zone," Montgomery County mostly left its mostly-successful schools alone, but in the struggling "Red Zone"--where the county's booming population of poor, minority, and immigrant children lives--system leaders poured in extra money, staff, and programs like full-day kindergarten.

The obvious question is how did Weast get away with it? After all, most superintendents would get killed by affluent parents and their school-board representatives for trying such a "steal from the rich" approach. It's evident that Weast is a smart, savvy, down-to-earth executive and communicator, and wise, ensuring that the district's reforms included something for everyone. (He was obsessed with gap closing, but also talked about raising achievement for all students, including those who were already high-performing.) And he wasn't afraid to talk about the need for poor kids to have extra resources in order to catch up, or to take flack from angry parents. As Jay Mathews relays in his review of the book, "A father asked at a tense school board meeting, 'Why can't my child have full-day kindergarten?' Weast replied: 'He can if you move to the Red Zone.'"

But there's another factor that the book only touches on that's crucial to the viability of the Robin Hood approach: Montgomery County's politics. Simply stated, the strategy works because the county has lots of wealthy liberals. (It went 71-28 for Obama.)

Montgomery County is a great example of what political analysts like Bill Bishop and Richard Florida might call the "new Blue" suburbs: It's chocked-full of prosperous, well-educated voters, many of whom work in "creative class" fields such as bio-tech and non-profit management, and who enjoy living in proximity to a big city with all of its cultural amenities. These are exactly the kinds of voters who would be willing to tax themselves at higher rates in order to improve the schools of the less fortunate--while also being politically active enough to ensure that the school system does right by their kids, too.

For those who would like to replicate this approach elsewhere, there's good news and bad news. If you agree with the likes of Bishop and Florida, the inner-ring suburbs of most big cities are going to continue to get bluer, dominated by progressive voters who would be open to a "Red Zone/Green Zone" strategy. (In part that's because conservatives continue to move further out to the exurbs and beyond.) As in Montgomery County, these wealthy liberals might not live right next door to poor families, and their kids might not actually go to school with many children living in poverty, but they are in relatively close proximity and they're certainly served by the same large system.

The bad news is that, in most metropolitan areas, "relatively close proximity" isn't enough. What makes the Montgomery County strategy work is that the district is countywide. In most places of America, on the other hand, it would be chopped up into dozens of smaller districts, delineated at least in part by race and class. Ritzy Potomac would have its own school system while working-class Silver Spring would have another. There'd be no chance to play the Robin Hood game, because no one jurisdiction would be large or diverse enough to spread the wealth around. And that's the case for most inner-ring suburbs in the Northeast, Midwest, and West, from Boston to Philly, Chicago to the Bay Area, and on and on.

Which brings us back to places like Fairfax County, Virginia and Wake County, North Carolina. These, too, are huge districts with diversity, wealth, and progressive voters, making them likely candidates for Montgomery County-style reform. One irony, then, is that the most fertile ground for progressive school reform might turn out to be the Bluer parts of the Red South--thanks to that region's tradition of countywide school systems. And that's hardly insignificant; more than a third of America's hundred largest districts are these Southern countywide systems (13 of them in Florida alone).

And what about those of you who live in other parts of the country and want this sort of strategy to come to your community? Here's my suggestion: Root for gentrification. It's not crazy to think that some big urban systems, particularly in "hip" cities like Seattle, Austin, San Francisco, and D.C., could someday enjoy a more balanced mix of rich and poor that would make the Montgomery County approach feasible there, too.

The South and gentrification, two key drivers of education reform? You heard it here first.

More By Author