Governance

Just in the nick of time, another Teach for America / Joel Klein School of Big City Reform alumnus is heading off to take the reins of a troubled city school district. (John White, a TFA/Klein alum is on his way to New Orleans.) According to the Times, Cami Anderson, all of 39 years old, ?faces the monumental task of rescuing an urban school system [Newark] that has long been mired in low achievement, high turnover and a culture of failure, despite decades of state intervention.? ?Says the WSJ, Anderson ?will attempt to reform the largest and one of the most troubled public school systems in the state.?

She has her work cut out for her.

For an idea of how long Newark has been struggling, see David Skinner's 2006 story in Ed Next. The district was taken over by the State of New Jersey in 1995. (I do hope Anderson considers a new motto for the district: I'm not sure how old it is, but ?Changing hearts and minds to value education? does not quite convey a sense of optimism about the future.)

The Newark job should be somewhat lighter thanks to some serious money from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who, with great fanfare, promised $100 million to the district last fall. ?But the money seems to come ? and it's unclear whether any has come ? with some strings and some questions, including how to leverage it if and when...

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder is a new name in education circles, but not to me. Having lived in the state my whole life, I proudly supported him from the days his popular, ?One Tough Nerd,? ads started popping on TV in early 2010. In the August primaries he pulled a shocking upset and went on to win the general election by a landslide. But since taking office, his efforts to erase deficits through drastic budget cuts have left him a villainous figure to many Michiganders. These are many of the same people you hear decrying his new education plan. By introducing these reforms while trimming the state's K-12 education budget by 4%, Snyder is hoping to do more with less. Personally, I couldn't be more in favor of the breath of fresh air he's blowing into the Michigan education system, but there's a lot more at play.

Snyder's plans, while promising, will take time to enact; schools, on the other hand, must act on his budget restrictions immediately. In Michigan, a state where union membership is mandatory for public school teachers, archaic ?last hired ? first fired? policies are still controlling who gets laid off. By not addressing collective bargaining, Snyder's education cutbacks will end up dealing an unintended blow: the jobs of young teachers. I know this because it could have been me. When I joined Fordham last fall, I passed up an offer to teach civics and history at a public high school...

Unions are not to blame for the severity of public pension shortfalls, but that doesn't mean that taking a hard look at collective bargaining is a bad idea. Matthew Di Carlo at Shanker Blog called yesterday for pols and commentators to stop blaming the nation's public pension issues on collective bargaining. He has a point, but I can't run with his conclusions here:

I find little evidence that the unionization of public employees has any effect ? whether positive or negative ? on the fiscal soundness of state pension plans. This, along with the fact that we already know why pensions are in trouble, and it has little to do with unions, once again represents strong tentative evidence that the push to eliminate collective bargaining is misguided, and the blame on unions is misplaced. States with little or no union presence are, on average, in no better shape.

Pensions are far from the only issue at hand. The Pew report cited by Matthew shows that, in addition to the $660 billion gap in pension systems, there is a $604 billion shortfall to pay for generous health benefits for public-sector retirees. This gap has little to do with the financial crisis, because states didn't have much savings to lose in the markets to begin with.

The absolute level of health care liability per person ? not the gap, but the dollar amount states will have to shell out eventually ? seems to be related to unionization density....

Though I thought the recent Fordham discussion about whether school boards were a ?vital? part of 21st century education was a great one, I would not have singled out Anne Bryant, president of the National School Boards Association, as Mike did in his post, as the newest entrant into ?the pantheon of impatient reformers.?

Mike praises Bryant for taking on the unions and arguing, during the debate, that...

unions buying the school board's seat is just plain wrong. There should be the distinction between management and labor and governance, and management and labor?.? I have to admit that having the kind of situation that Gene [Maeroff, member of the panel, board member of Edison, NJ, and author of a new book on school boards] described to me about the candidates being put up by the union doesn't always get you the best school board members.

Mike's conclusion about these remarks ? that ?similar words could well have been spoken by Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein, Jeb Bush, or any other dyed-in-the-wool reformer? ? are understandable, in the narrow sense that they indicate Bryant's willingness to take on union power.? But his extrapolation that those words mean that ?school boards continue to be influenced if not actually captured by the unions? and that ?there just might be a fatal flaw with elected local boards? is pushing it.

The fatal flaw here is not ?elected local boards,? but the failure of our policymakers and legislators to ensure the...

Montgomery County, Maryland, one of the wealthiest and highest-performing large school districts in the country, is likely to reduce its level of per-pupil spending, in violation of a state maintenance of effort requirement. This means giving up an estimated $29 million in state aid in 2013:

The county's elected leaders have rescinded a request made last month seeking to be excused from a state formula for funding education.

The decision would allow the county to reduce the amount of money it gives to Montgomery County Public Schools in the next fiscal year ? and potentially every year thereafter.

In a letter Thursday to the Maryland State Board of Education, County Council President Valerie Ervin (D-Dist. 5) of Silver Spring and County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) said they do not plan to seek a waiver from Maryland's maintenance-of-effort law.

The county spends roughly $15,000 per pupil, according to the Maryland Report Card, and found itself unable to cover the increased cost from enrollment gains in recent years.

The most interesting part of the story to me is the battle between the County Council, which sees an unsustainable budget, and the school board, which has been demanding that more county resources to be diverted to the already-flush schools. The Council seems to have tied the hands of the district with this move, committing Montgomery County to lower spending for the foreseeable future....

According to today's New York Times Chris Christie went to ?the heart of liberal darkness? yesterday ? and kept his cool.? The occasion was a lecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Christie was on his best behavior as he praised his audience for being ?among the leaders of our educational future.?

He also admitted to having ?struggled a lot? with the issue of the combative and abrasive language he often uses in talking about education. Apparently, not for long. According to reporter Richard Perez-Pena, Christie ?said he would not change his tone until the teachers' union, the New Jersey Education Association, agreed that schools are in crisis and showed more willingness to make major changes.? Said Christie:

I have to convince the public that the house is on fire.

And he got an ovation from the crowd, according to the report, when he said, ?The reason I'm engaging in this battle with the teachers' union is because it's the only fight worth having.?? That should make the transportation department, parks and recreation, corrections, banking and industry, and the other? state agencies very happy.

The Education Gadfly

Education ?reforms? abound today, yet the sluggish pace of actual changes wrought by those new policies, programs, and practices demands a fresh look at public education's basic structures and operating arrangements. What America needs in the twenty-first century is a far more fundamental approach to ?re-forming? K-12 education. Our ?marble cake? policy structure of overlapped local, state, and national responsibility for schools has proven more adept at blocking or slowing needed change than at advancing it?a problem aggravated by our practice of (in most places) separating ?education governance? from the regular leadership structures (and election cycles) of cities and states. Indeed, ?local control? as traditionally construed needs a makeover, too. We are gearing up a three-year effort?in partnership with the Center for American Progress?to put governance at the center of the education-reform conversation. Expect to see much more from us on this important topic in the coming months.

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="250" caption="Click to watch a video of this commentary, as part of Fordham's recent event Are School Boards Vital in the 21st Century?"][/caption]

The shortcomings of elected local school boards are only the most obvious of the many problems of education governance in the United States in 2011.? To be sure, those boards are a fundamental part, maybe the largest part, of our customary governance arrangements, but my discontent with them is just part of my larger dissatisfaction with all traditional governance and structural arrangements for K-12 education on these shores.

These arrangements, though they differ some from place to place, generally display four characteristics that make them obsolete at best and dysfunctional at their all-too-common worst:

First, while formal constitutional responsibility for educating kids belongs to the states, the actual delivery of that education falls squarely on local education agencies, typically called districts, which are geographically defined, most often by the boundaries of a city, town, county, or other municipality. Kids are generally educated in public schools operated by these districts.

Second, though states have shouldered some responsibility for financing public education, usually by decreeing a minimum or ?foundation? level of per-pupil spending, sizable portions of education revenue are locally generated through property taxes, bond levies, and such. Those amounts differ enormously from place to place within the same state and are uncommonly vulnerable to interest group manipulation...

Amy Fagan

In case you missed it, here is the video of our April 26 event, Are Local School Boards Vital in 21st Century America? It was a great discussion; our excellent panel consisted of: Anne L. Bryant, executive director of the National School Boards Association; Gene I. Maeroff, founding director of the Hechinger Institute, Teachers College, Columbia University and author of School Boards in America: A Flawed Exercise in Democracy; Christopher S. Barclay, president of the Montgomery County Board of Education, Maryland; and our own Chester E. Finn, Jr., president of the Fordham Institute. The group was moderated by Fordham Institute Executive Vice President Mike Petrilli.

Obviously you can watch the video in full. But here's?one overview/summary that was written about the event. NSBA has posted a write-up about it, too.?And below we've pulled together a few highlights of our own as well?. thanks to Fordham's Daniela Fairchild, who tweeted the entire event. (paraphrased)

Anne Bryant: School boards are the connection to the community. ? Not all school boards are perfect. Nothing is perfect. Checker Finn isn't perfect. (laughter erupts) ...School boards are transparent and accountable to public and members want reform.

...

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