Governance

Editor’s note: On Monday, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools inducted Rod Paige into their Charter School Hall of Fame. Rod’s contributions to education date back over half a century. Most notably, he rose to national prominence as the superintendent of the Houston Independent School District and was appointed the first black secretary of education in 2001. The Fordham Institute is also proud to have him serve on our board of trustees. This is the first half of a two-part interview (second half is here) he conducted with our own Alyssa Schwenk.

Alyssa Schwenk: The first charter law was passed in 1991, and Texas's charter law passed in 1995. When you were the superintendent of the Houston Independent School District, do you remember the first time you heard about charter schools and what you thought about them?

Secretary Rod Paige: A couple of years before that, I read about charter schools in the press, and the idea impressed me even before the Texas legislature started to talk about it. I was excited about the idea because I thought it was a way to increase innovation in schools, a way to unleash the ideas that a lot of teachers...

Many education reformers once thought that parental choice was the “ultimate local control.” When opponents of choice programs defended the district monopoly system by rhetorically asking, “Don’t you believe in your locally elected board?” we’d reply, “We want education decisions to be made as close to kids as possible—by families.”

We thought that this was the morally sound answer. But we also thought that it was a political winner. Sure, there’d be opposition from those lobbying on behalf of the districts that stood to lose control. But everyone else would want to empower parents.

Moreover, many of us had read John Chubb and Terry Moe’s seminal Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools, which argued that democratic control was the cause of many of public education’s troubles. Local school boards, many reformers believed, were populated by aspiring politicians with pet issues and petty grievances. They were controlled by powerful interest groups who cared about things other than student learning.

We assumed that school results would be much better, and school politics much reduced, if we dramatically decentralized the system by handing authority to families, educators, and civil society. Teachers could start and lead schools, nonprofits could operate and support schools, and parents could match...

Gary Johnson, the former two-term governor of New Mexico, is the Libertarian Party’s presidential nominee. He’ll face off (with running mate William Weld) in November against the Republican Party's Donald Trump and Mike Pence and the Democratic Party's Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine. Here are some of his views on education:

  1. School choice: “I think I was more outspoken than any governor in the country regarding school choice—believing that the only way to really reform education was to bring competition to public education. So for six straight years as governor of New Mexico, I proposed a full-blown voucher system that would’ve brought about that competition.” August 2012.
  2. Federal role in education: “I think that the number-one thing that the federal government could do when it comes to the delivery of education would be to abolish itself from the education business….It’s also important to point out that the federal Department of Education was established in 1979. And there is nothing to suggest that, since 1979, that the federal Department of Education has been value-added regarding anything. So just get the federal government out of education.” August 2012.
  3. Common Core: “[Gary Johnson] opposes Common Core and any other attempts to impose national standards and requirements
  4. ...

I believe people are generally at their angriest when they feel powerless.

It’s one thing to be unhappy with the current state of your life—heck, we’ve all been there. But it’s entirely different when there’s nothing you can do about it. That causes fury.

My practiced instinct now, when I see a person or a group of people acting out in rage, is to assume that they’ve been dispossessed of something important. I try my best to understand what’s keeping them from exerting an influence on their situation.

You can see this in revolts against brutal despots and in centuries of civil uprisings across the globe when there are food shortages. You can see it in urban unrest when residents can’t fix crime, housing, jobs, law enforcement, or transportation. But you can also see it in an abused child’s explosion of anger—or the uncorked temper of an adult who’s been subjected to a behemoth organization’s purposely unending cavalcade of customer service representatives. In a recent article, I applied this frame to our current politics, likening the dominant story of the 2016 campaign to a riot.

There are countless such examples in education. Think of the parent whose child has been...

Terry Ryan

I was the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s point person in Ohio for twelve years. I never met Robert Pondiscio but have followed his writing since leaving Fordham in 2013. I am also a former New Schools Venture Fund (NSVF) Pahara fellow (class of 2008). Pondiscio’s piece, “The Left’s drive to push conservatives out of education reform,” has triggered an important conversation about race, power, politics, and school reform.

I was the only Republican in my cohort of Pahara fellows, which included the likes of progressive education leaders John King, Cami Anderson, and Andy Rotherham. I had philosophical disagreements with some of my New Schools colleagues, and I wasn’t nearly as excited about the election of President Barack Obama back in 2008 as they were. But every single one of my NSVF friends treated me and my opinions with respect. What’s more, they actually wanted to hear what I had to say.  

I attended the New Schools Venture Fund Conference in California that was at the center of Pondiscio’s piece. My take is different from his. I was less offended by the “push” of the political Left than I was disappointed by how voiceless the conservative ideas around...

In a thick of a presidential campaign, it’s easy to miss the forest for the trees. Education commentators are justifiably curious about the possible schools agenda of a President Trump, Sanders, or Clinton, sometimes to the exclusion of candidates in the down-ballot races. But even though the past few months have largely been given over to the looming fall contest, that’s certainly not the only meaningful election being held. This week, for example, millions of Texas families wisely rejected the candidacy of Mary Lou Bruner, the hard-right zealot who nearly won the Republican primary for a seat on the Texas State Board of Education.

First things first: Though she was ultimately defeated by rival Keven Ellis in Tuesday’s runoff vote, Bruner came within a few national headlines of holding office. She was the big winner in the original primary election several months ago, horsewhipping Ellis by seventeen points and coming within two points of the clinching 50 percent mark. The good people of her district have shown themselves to be very comfortable with the thundering oddballs who tend to prevail at the local level, and that played to Bruner’s strengths: She proved a Trumpian conjurer of free publicity, earning national fame by...

  • Education reformers are right to prioritize the closing of “achievement gaps”—the disparities in academic outcomes separating comparatively advantaged (and primarily white) students from their low-income and minority peers. But there’s such a thing as prosecuting the achievement gap beyond its proportion, as this Hechinger Report story on Kentucky schools illustrates. While surveying the state’s testing progress since its (propitiously early) adoption of the Common Core, author Luba Ostashevsky focuses heavily on the fact that white third graders have increased reading proficiency by twice the amount that their black classmates have (4 percent vs. 2 percent). It’s certainly true that we’d like to see those gains realized equitably, but it’s also worth highlighting—and celebrating—the fact that both groups are doing better than they were previously. Regardless of their background, most elementary schoolers know enough math to understand that achievement isn’t a zero-sum proposition.
  • The political challenges around reform can be enough to make you pine for a benevolent education dictator to establish rigorous academic standards, ample choice in schooling, and unlimited recess for all. But put down that scepter, Jefe Duncan—most of the truly important policy decisions are still made at the state level, and that’s why it’s so
  • ...

The Wonkathon edition

On this week’s podcast, Mike Petrilli and Brandon Wright discuss the Department of Education’s guidance on transgender rights, Jay Mathews’s call for new ways to measure student success under ESSA, and their favorite Wonkathon submissions. During the Research Minute, Amber Northern explains the varying success of private schools in Milwaukee.

Amber's Research Minute

Michael R. Ford and Fredrik O. Andersson, "Determinants of Organizational Failure in the Milwaukee School Voucher Program," Policy Studies Journal (May 2016).

John Thompson

Back in April, Mike Petrilli criticized the way that the U.S. Office of Civil Rights (OCR) investigates racial disparities in school suspension rates. Mike seemed to support the use of data to inform policy making, though he opposed the OCR’s form of data-driven accountability. That is constructive, but his charge against the OCR—blaming it for problems that have been decades in the making—is not.

For support, Mike cites an OCR complaint against Oklahoma City Public Schools (OKCPS) that was recently settled. He writes:

At the heart of the federal case was the fact that African American students are 62 percent more likely to be given in-school suspensions in Oklahoma City than are white students.

That was it. As far as I can tell, nobody found instances of black youngsters being penalized more harshly than white kids for the same infractions….In Oklahoma City, African Americans are three times likelier to live in poverty than are whites. We should be surprised that Oklahoma City’s racial disparity in school discipline rates isn’t larger.

So now Oklahoma City will suspend fewer students, putting student learning and safety at risk, because nobody was willing to challenge the federal government’s questionable...

Over the weekend, I attended a performance of the Tony-winning show All the Way, whose title political junkies (or readers of a certain age) will know refers to Lyndon Johnson and his 1964 presidential campaign. The play was entertaining and enlightening, depicting President Johnson as a funnier, more likable Frank Underwood—with the salty language and some of the paranoid tendencies of Richard Nixon.

What I found most fascinating, though, was its treatment of detractors of the 1964 Civil Rights Act—most notably Johnson’s mentor turned political opponent, arch-segregationist Senator Richard Brevard Russell of Georgia. The wise and amiable “Uncle Dick” knew that he and his fellow southern Democrats couldn’t attack civil rights head on. In one scene, he tells a handful of his compatriots that, instead of playing to type as rednecks and defenders of brutal racism, they have to make their argument on Constitutional grounds. The refrain of his speeches became, “This bill is an assault on the states and on our Constitution.”

That came to mind on Monday when I had the chance to ask former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan about the mounting controversy over implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)—a sixth- or seventh-generation descendant of L.B.J.’s...

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