Governance

When charter schools first emerged more than two decades ago, they presented an innovation in public school governance. No longer would school districts enjoy the “exclusive franchise” to own and operate public schools, as chartering pioneer and advocate Ted Kolderie explained. Charters wouldn’t gain all of the independence of private schools—they would still report to a publicly accountable body, or authorizer—but they would be largely freed from the micromanagement of school boards, district bureaucracies, and union contracts. Autonomy, in exchange for accountability, would reign supreme.

Over the course of its twenty-year history, however, American education and its charter school sector have evolved in important ways. One of the significant ways is school governance—not a topic that gets a lot of attention but, as it turns out, a crucial one that is overdue for an overhaul (and not just in the charter sector).

The growth of nonprofit charter networks (CMOs), the ubiquity of for-profit school-management companies (EMOs), and the emergence of “virtual” charter schools have all upended the notion that charters would mostly be freestanding “community-based” schools of the “one-off” variety. Yet the public policies and practices that characterize charter governance haven’t kept pace with these real-world changes.

To examine this mismatch more closely and consider how it might be set right, we interviewed nearly two dozen analysts, authorizers, board members, and practitioners with interest in and knowledge of charter schools. Not one of them felt that the inherited assumptions and regulations about governance in the charter sector are truly well...

A useful new report from Public Agenda and the Kettering Foundation underscores the painful divide between parents and education reformers on the crucial topic of what to do about bad schools.

School hallway
Schools play many roles in communities, and the prospect of closing one undermines most of those.
Photo by hundrednorth

In a nutshell, if the neighborhood school is crummy, parents want it fixed. So do community leaders. Ed reformers are far more apt to want to close it and give families alternatives such as charter schools.

As Andy Smarick has perceptively written, schools play multiple roles in communities, and the prospect of closing one undermines most of those. Hence, shuttering a school affects more than the convenience of keeping one’s own kids in a familiar (and generally close-at-hand) facility, maybe even with that nice Ms. Greensleeves who teaches fourth grade there. As Jean Johnson writes on behalf of Public Agenda, based on a recent series of focus groups (as well as much other research), “Most parents see local public schools as important community institutions and viscerally reject the idea that closing schools—even those that are persistently low-performing—is a good way to improve accountability in education.”

On the reform side, however, Johnson writes, “In many communities, school leaders are closing or drastically reorganizing low-performing schools. Many districts are turning to...

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  • The U.S. Department of Education just announced more SIG money going out the door. At a TBFI event late last year, the Department and I tussled about the results to date, which showed that more than a third of participating schools (already among the lowest performing in the nation) had gotten worse despite this multi-BILLION dollar program. I sadly predicted these grim results several years ago—not because I’m clairvoyant but because stacks of research over decades showed that turnarounds aren’t a reliable or scalable strategy for generating more high-quality seats. But the Department remains bullish; the release says, “Early findings show positive momentum and progress in many SIG schools.”

    Many of us are looking forward to thoroughly analyzing the program’s effects, but we’ve been in a holding pattern. The Department still hasn’t released school-level results from Year 1 yet (even though those tests were given two years ago), and we’ve not yet received any results from Year 2 (even though those tests were given a year ago). Forgive the quick snark, but maybe we just have to wait until close of business on the Friday before Thanksgiving week again to get results.

  • If you follow the common-assessments consortia, make sure to read this post by Catherine Gewertz about PARCC’s and SB’s plans to maintain financial sustainability when federal dollars run out. This is just one of the many, many, many reasons to fret about Common Core–aligned tests. Need more?
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GadflyA fierce school-choice debate rages in Alabama—but the threat to the Common Core standards has receded, for now. When it became clear that the Senate Education Committee would not approve a bill to revoke the Heart of Dixie’s commitment to the standards, the sponsor of the bill himself withdrew it from consideration. This is well and good. Now maybe they can get back to safeguarding the separation of powers—and implementing the Common Core.

South Dakota has the (dubious) honor of being the first state to explicitly authorize school employees to carry guns to work. State groups representing teachers and school boards expressed concern that the bill had been rushed to a vote, did not actually make schools safer, and ignored other approaches to safety, such as employing armed officers. In related news, a Texas school employee recently shot himself at a concealed-carry class for teachers.

Boston has approved a new school-assignment plan that reflects not just geography but also school quality—amounting to the greatest change in the way that the city assigns students in twenty-five years and “finally dismantling the remnants of the notorious [1970s] busing plan.” Mike Petrilli is optimistic; for his take, check out this week’s Education Gadfly Show podcast.

The opposition to KIPP DC’s plan to build a new high school is indicative of challenges that most charter schools face: Its future neighbors...

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America’s fragmented, decentralized, politicized, and bureaucratic system of education governance is a major impediment to school reform. In Education Governance for the Twenty-First Century: Overcoming the Structural Barriers to School Reform, a number of leading education scholars, analysts, and practitioners show that understanding the impact of specific policy changes in areas such as standards, testing, teachers, or school choice requires careful analysis of the broader governing arrangements that influence their content, implementation, and impact.

Education Governance for the Twenty-First Century comprehensively assesses the strengths and weaknesses of what remains of the old in education governance, scrutinizes how traditional governance forms are changing, and suggests how governing arrangements might be further altered to produce better educational outcomes for children.

Paul Manna, Patrick McGuinn, and their colleagues provide the analysis and alternatives that will inform attempts to adapt nineteenth and twentieth century governance structures to the new demands and opportunities of today.

* Copublished with the Brookings Institution and the Center for American Progress

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Education Governance for the Twenty-First Century

What is Education Governance?

The greatest failing of education reformers in the U.S. this past quarter century has been their neglect of governance and structure—widely regarded either as politically impractical to touch or as too boring to get anyone interested. Yet the very structures and governance of our K–12 system often prevent other badly needed changes from taking place, enduring, or succeeding.

Recent months, however, have seen some cracks in the governance glacier with a spate of new books, articles, and conferences on the topic—meaning this set of reform challenges is no longer taboo to discuss or to tackle.

In an earnest effort to advance this crucial conversation, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute—in partnership with the Center for American Progress and the Brookings Institution Press—is pleased to present Education Governance for the Twenty-First Century: Overcoming the Structural Barriers to School Reform, edited by Paul Manna of the College of William and Mary and Patrick McGuinn of Drew University.

This important volume should be on the desk or bedside of every serious education reformer and policymaker in the land.

Featuring chapters by education scholars, analysts, and battle-scarred practitioners, it closely examines our present structures, identifies their failings, and offers some penetrating ideas for how governance might be done differently.

All serious reform victories begin with battles over ideas. In that spirit, we urge you to spend some quality time with this book. Overhauling our dysfunctional education-governance arrangements is a key priority for us at Fordham—and will inevitably loom among the hottest and most consequential issues for all serious reformers in the years to come.

The End of Exceptionalism in American Education: The Changing PoLong viewed as the purview of local school boards and superintendents, education governance has become more complicated—and politicized—in recent years. Executives at every level, including mayors and governors, have gotten into the act. So have judges, legislators, and federal officials. In this book, Teachers College professor Jeff Henig makes sense of the complex and intersecting governance structures that we have today. He explains the “whys” of this shift: While school boards and superintendents (what he calls “single-purpose institutions”) were once widely viewed as apolitical experts, concerns about the country’s global competitiveness have called their expertise into question and opened school systems to criticism. He also speculates that newly active outside organizations (i.e., reform groups) find the more distant decision-makers (what Henig dubs “general purpose” bodies) more amenable to their interests and policy goals—and thus have advocated for their increased involvement in education. Henig also offers perspective on how the various actors engage with policy: Analyzing data on legislative activity, he finds that Congress and statehouses micromanage in all manners, while courts have become more active on such issues as racial segregation and school finance. Looking forward, Henig offers reasons for both concern and optimism. With so many cooks in the kitchen, there may be little hope for policy coherence. Still and all, he concludes that...

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Too many cooks
There are too many cooks in the education kitchen—and nobody's really in charge.

To anyone concerned with the state of America’s schools, one of the more alarming experiences of the past few decades has been seeing waves of important reforms and promising innovations crash on the rocks of failure. Why this persistent failure? One major cause is our flawed, archaic, and inefficient system for organizing and operating our public schools. To their discredit, education reformers in the U.S. this past quarter century have largely neglected the issues of governance and structure—widely regarded either as politically impractical to touch or as too boring to get anyone interested. Yet the very structures and governance of our K–12 system often prevent other badly needed changes from taking place, enduring, or succeeding.

Perhaps the biggest failing of the education system is its fragmented approach to making decisions; there are too many cooks in the education system, and nobody is really in charge. Despite America’s romantic attachment to local control, the reality is that the way it works today represents the worst of both worlds. On one hand, district-level power constrains individual schools; its standardizing, bureaucratic, and political force ties the hands of principals, keeping them from doing what is best for their pupils with regard to budget, staffing, and curriculum. On the other, local control is not strong enough to clear...

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GadflyAfter attracting criticism for his description of how sequestration would impact schools (most notably, his comment that schools were already sending “pink slips” and that 40,000 teachers would be out of a job), Education Secretary Arne Duncan apologized for his “choice of words,” but emphasized that the cuts are still a big problem. Apology accepted—though we still miss the Arne Duncan who used to say that “doing more with less” was “the New Normal.”

After a school board election with a price tag in the millions, Los Angeles superintendent John Deasy’s job appears to be safe, at least for now. The board president, Deasy ally, and two-term incumbent Monica Garcia, won her district handily despite fierce opposition of the unions, though one-term incumbent and union ally Steven Zimmer won a close race versus a reform-y newcomer. Whether or not the reformers maintain a voting majority will be determined by a third race, which is headed to a runoff. Back to the trenches!

In an unprecedented move, Georgia governor Nathan Deal removed six members of the dysfunctional DeKalb County school board—and a federal judge upheld his right to do so. The case is likely to move on to the Georgia Supreme Court. But in the meantime, the search is on for six...

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Education reformers who take on the important but massive issue of school governance often find themselves, like three captains at the helm of the same ship, attempting to navigate in different directions. The devolution model, piloted by Andy Smarick and Neerav Kingsland, embraces efforts to expand the role of charter organizations and dispenses with the district. The school-transformation model, put forward by Mass Insight, relies on third-party support to construct K–12 feeder patterns of allied schools; and the portfolio strategy, championed by the authors of this short CRPE paper, puts forward a system in which diverse, autonomous schools are governed by the district via performance contracts. Though these approaches seem to conflict, the authors of this paper contend that these proposals are actually complimentary variations on a theme: Government ought to steer (e.g., set goals, judge performance) but not row (i.e., provide). The success of the portfolio model, which creates exactly this kind of government, depends on the supply response: the presence of smart entrepreneurs with innovative ideas about education, folks who are willing to fund those ideas, and so on. And while the devolution and school-transformation models can provide the supply response (respectively, a marketplace for providers and networks of schools organized in feeder patterns), they need a government that allows schools to innovate but closes those that fail. Though this report takes the (not unexpected) perspective that the portfolio strategy charts the clearest course through these stormy seas, it is an important step...

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