A failure of leadership in public education

It's sad enough on the surface. Public schools shriveling to dust while for-profit charters skim taxpayer dollars at a growing clip. Sadder still, it's a self inflicted wound and a failure of political and public education leadership.

As a business strategist, I've seen the scenario many times. An entrenched monopoly defends its traditional business model, circling the wagons to stave off competitors. Meanwhile, nimble and aggressive organizations sense opportunity and exploit it. That's what's happening with charter schools today, and if leaders in the education establishment want to know who to blame, they should look in the mirror.

For years, I've argued that the Department of Public Instruction should be leading the way to break up business as usual, pushing back hard against political agendas that force teachers to operate in handcuffs and strait jackets. At one point, I suggested that no new "traditional" schools should be built, with a reliance instead on alternative, small schools that would be sprinkled throughout communities and run by entrepreneurial teachers. In other words, I wanted DPI to be the driver of new options, not the resister. At one point, I even had extended conversations with some of the people in Raleigh. They couldn't even hear what I was saying.

Here are some my earlier posts on this issue.

Small schools: A position of integrity for progressives

For conservatives, vouchers appear to be a kind of holy grail for all things educational. And while vouchers may have a role in a comprehensive strategy for making progress in public education, the discussion cannot start there. It has to start from the progressive position of common good.

My fear, though, is that average Americans see progressives as advocating some version of status quo, while wingers have stood for something different, something called privatization (surprise, surprise). We on the left have not articulated a coherent path for improvement, and maybe we haven't even acknowledged the scope of the need.

Small schools. Again.

Of course, the charter school advocates will jump all over this as an affirmation of their schemes, but don't get distracted. This issue is about size, pure and simple, and the Department of Public Instruction is fully capable of choosing and operating small schools. All they need is the political will.

Maybe our next governor will jump on the small schools bandwagon too?

The Charter Challenge

In North Carolina, the program of charter schools is administered by the Office of Charter Schools, which is housed in the Finance and Business Services arm of the Department of Public Instruction (pdf). That position in the administrative hierarchy is the first hint that we're dealing with a sub-optimized initiative. Because charters are isolated organizationally from core academic services, it's hard to imagine that our school systems are aggressively taking advantage of opportunities for value capture, knowledge transfer and innovation. When any organization is assigned to finance for functional leadership, it's guaranteed to show up as an expense instead of an investment in the eyes of policy makers. Which might explain a common attitude about charters among some in the education establishment: a drain on "real" schools and a threat to teacher security.

A quick review of the Office of Charter Schools website shows an organization that goes to great pains to describe a charter school as just another kind of public school.

Charter schools provide parents a choice in the education of their children -- and it is a public choice. Public tax dollars are the primary funding sources for charter schools. Local, state, and federal dollars follow the child to a charter school. The schools have open enrollment with no discrimination, no religious associations, and no tuition.

But as Terry Stoops at the John Locke Foundation points out, that similarity stops at the line where accountability for performance kicks in. It pains me to say Stoops is correct on this issue, especially since he can't manage to keep sarcasm out of his reporting, but the truth is, he has a point. Charter schools and traditional public schools should be assessed with the same principles of accountability for performance.

To cut to the chase, I believe progressives and liberals are on the wrong side of the charter school debate. Rather than resisting the opportunity for innovation that comes with small schools, we should have been championing them all along. Specifically, we should be proponents of policies that encourage the education establishment itself to drive innovation by creating a thriving network of small schools all across the state. We should be encouraging the entrepreneurial spirit of our best teachers and administrators, inviting them to start new schools with the full support and backing of the Department of Public Instruction, as well as state and local school boards.

Instead of pouring resources into a growing base of huge public school facilities costing hundreds of millions of dollars to construct, and hundreds of thousands to maintain, let's shift dollars to teacher salaries so we can attract more of the best talent available ... and then cut them loose to innovate and excel. Not outside the education establishment, but as a new front inside the establishment, working in real partnership with parents, administrators, policy makers and families.

That could mean opening schools in vacant downtown stores, office buildings, strip malls, apartment complexes and more ... integrating students back into the communities where their parents live and work. You might think that's crazy, but it's not. My daughter attended high school on in a three room building with no gym, no cafeteria, no auditorium, and a total of 30 students in all four grades. It was a private school, but could just as easily have been a charter. (Her school was not willing to go along with standardized testing and a standardized curriculum, which is probably something that should be examined if we're serious about innovation.)

Innovation and experimentation with fresh, new thinking about charter schools appears to be on President Obama's agenda as well. His Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, was featured in the New Yorker this week (subscription required), and he is evidently working through the same issues:

In the fight over education in America today, there are, roughly speaking, two major camps: free-market reformers, who believe that competition, choice, and incentives must have greater play in education; and liberal traditionalists who rally around teachers’ unions and education schools. Obama’s choice of Duncan was widely received as a compromise. His appointment was a loss for the unions. Republicans approve of Duncan’s commitment to market-based reforms. Duncan must contend with critics on the right who don’t accept the federal government’s active role in education, and ones on the left who see him as a neoliberal enforcer, exploiting Obama’s Democratic bona fides to impose the free-market reform agenda on the unions.


Teachers first

Just to be clear, I'm a "teachers first" kind of guy. We need to pay teachers great salaries and get the hell out of the way so they can do their jobs.

As I said before,

I like the idea of using abandoned (or unmarketable) facilities like old grocery stores, strip malls, office space, etc., whenever possible for public needs like classrooms. What I don't like is the students being cut off from many of the resources that are available in big-box schools (cafe, library, gym).

Just an example: I go to the local public library nearly every day at lunch to use the free wi-fi for blogging. The other day, there were dozens of 10-14 year-olds asking the harried staff for assistance in finding books for this or that subject, and I even helped a few of them myself.

As I was pulling out of the parking lot an hour later, they had all piled into their (Christian) school bus and were (I'm assuming) headed back to class, each child clutching 2 or 3 library books.

I'm cool with that; it's what the library is for. But it did make me wonder about the school itself. Does it have a library at all? What other activities require them to hop on a bus just to take part?

Charter schools as change leaders

I really hope someone listens to your ideas, James. Educational bureaucracy has gotten in the way of learning. Thinking outside the box to make sure that we have nimble, responsive schools is what we need. Let's focus on the goal and then put the administrative and financial supports in place rather than letting existing financial models control the goal.


I haven't been able to penetrate the bureaucracy after many, many tries.

One of the great benefits of many aspects of government is the foundation of stability and continuity. That works a lot of the time ... but sometimes it doesn't.

Something like

Something like this?

It's a start

but not what I'm thinking.

It may seem like I'm splitting hairs, but the idea that public school innovation should have to depend on the generosity of billionaires seems misguided to me. It reminds me of all that lottery thing ... they idea that you can get something for nothing.

Education is fundamental, and education innovation should be at the heart of the mission of the Department ... not a pet project that only happens if a sugar-daddy steps up.

When we get wrapped up in the "private" part of public-private partnerships, we tell policy makers that people don't need to pay for services.

Like I said, it's a start.

I hope you will continue to

I hope you will continue to be diligent in your work to improve schools and enhance the lives of our youth. Stay the course!

Bless you!