One of the most important developments in urban education over the last two decades has been the rapid expansion of school choice.
To some, this represents the happy, if unexpected, marriage of public education and free enterprise thinking—diversification of providers, growth of school options, and empowerment of parents.
But an underappreciated and counterintuitive contributor to this progress has been the reform-oriented technocrat. Indeed, in the years to come, if civil society and families are to make more decisions and the government is to make fewer, policymakers have a critical role to play.
For a century, we relied on the district system to deliver urban public education. There was a single government provider, it controlled all aspects of its schools, and students’ school assignments were based on home addresses. Countless policies and practices (related to facilities, transportation, accountability, and much more) evolved with that particular system in mind.
But as that system is slowly replaced by one marked by an array of nongovernmental school providers, parental choice, and the “portfolio management” mindset, new policies (undergirded by a new understanding of the government’s role in public schooling) are needed. That requires new government activity, much like the transition from a state-controlled...