Declaring educational bankruptcy

Turning around bad schools is harder than turning around Chrysler, GM, or AIG--but our fearless, tireless, irrepressible new federal administration seems bent on doing this, too. Just listen to Education Secretary Arne Duncan on the topic of closing and "reconstituting" failed schools.

To be sure, schools are smaller than giant corporations, but they're at least as burdened by employee contracts, long term obligations, community roots, political entanglements, all manner of vendors and suppliers, and "shareholders" in the form of children and parents who depend on them. And because they are public agencies rather than private firms, there is nothing quite like "Chapter 11" through which they can be stripped of their debts and obligations, reorganized, and given a fresh start.

Duncan is bent on changing this. He has no power to do so directly but insists that he will persuade state and local school systems to close thousands of dreadful schools, sometimes termed "dropout factories," starting with at least 250 in 2010 and rising to 1,000 a year. (The U.S. has about 88,000 public schools, of which some 6,000 have already been designated by the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) as long-term failures in urgent need of "reconstitution." Thousands more will soon join them.)

As academic standards, assessments and "accountability systems" have gained traction in American primary-secondary education in recent years, districts and states have become adept at identifying bad schools on the basis of their woeful results as documented with hard evidence. This is a vast improvement over the days when we judged schools by reputation, programmatic offerings, facilities, promises, or per-pupil spending. Much like corporations, schools today have "bottom lines"--educational gains and losses--by which their viability can be gauged.

Yet our education system has proven as inept at intervening in failed schools as it is skilled at spotting them. Districts responsible under federal law for "reconstituting" them nearly always opt for the least intrusive option--changing the curriculum or perhaps replacing the principal rather than shutting them down and starting afresh. As CEO of the Chicago system for nine years, Duncan was an exception: he closed (and reopened) more than a dozen of his city's most troubled schools. But even that rare achievement must be kept in perspective: Chicago has more than 600 schools of which the overwhelming majority have been found lacking under NCLB.

As Education Secretary, Duncan runs no schools and has no direct authority over closing or reconstituting even the worst of them. He can, however, manipulate three levers:

  • Billions in discretionary spending under the federal "stimulus" package, far more than any of his predecessors had. With that cash, he can try, in effect, to bribe states and districts to get serious about school reconstitution--much as Geithner, Bernanke, Obama et al. are doing with automakers, banks, etc.
  • The overdue re-authorization of NCLB, which could change the ground-rules and--if lawmakers are really gutsy--remove federal funding from slacker schools, districts, or states. (Of course, Duncan and Obama would need to persuade Congress, which heretofore has been loath to take money away from even the worst of public schools.)
  • Sunlight and jawboning, in an effort to persuade state and local officials to take serious action--and embarrass those that falter. 

Yet reconstituting GM and Chrysler is apt to prove easier. State and local officials have had plenty of opportunity to close, reopen, and otherwise turn around their failing schools, and they have a lot more levers, starting with direct authority over budgets, personnel, etc. That they've done so little of it attests to five core problems:

First, most teachers enjoy lifetime tenure under state law and seniority under local employment contracts. If Ms. Witherspoon loses her job at the Jefferson School due to its reconstitution, the district must find her another one, perhaps at the Madison School, and if she doesn't like it there she has innumerable ways--and union help--to fuss. (In many cities, principals also have tenure.) Note that GM's auto workers once enjoyed a similar employment guarantee--via the UAW's company-financed "jobs bank"--but gave this up as a condition of the federal bail-out.

Second, parents and kids ordinarily love their schools--and their teachers--no matter what the test scores show, and will fight hard to preserve them pretty much unchanged. Just ask Michelle Rhee (or anyone who has ever tried to shut a school for whatever reason.)

Third, those kids do need to be educated somewhere. If a school is actually closed, even temporarily, they must be accommodated in another one, which brings to bear all manner of rules, court orders, transportation challenges, crowding issues, etc.

Fourth, turning around an individual school is a bit like curing athlete's foot on a single toe. If the surrounding system isn't also fixed--perverse incentives, dysfunctional culture, ill-chosen curriculum, bad personnel practices, etc.--the familiar fungus and itch will soon reappear on the healed digit.

Fifth, the agent-of-change is ordinarily the very same school system that let the school fail in the first place. Rarely does it possess the capacity to rectify its own mistakes.

It would be churlish not to wish Mr. Duncan well as he tries to roll this boulder to the mountaintop. But it's a very heavy lift.

A slightly different version of this article first appeared on National Review Online's blog, The Corner.

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