1) Obligatory State of the Union Thought: If you expected President Barack Obama to spend much time discussing education during last night’s State of the Union dog-and-pony show, then you didn’t get your hands on the copy of the speech released earlier in the day. And what he said didn’t signal much of anything. At the end of the day, the President and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have already signaled what they are going to do on school reform front through Race to the Top, the I3 initiative and in their bully pulpit efforts. Which means that the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers can’t count on the White House to advance their defense of status quo ideas.
The real questions lie with the House Republicans. On one hand, House Education and Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline is opposing any further expansion of federal education policy, argues for a return to that myth that is local control, and wants to trash the accountability provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act. But Republicans aren’t united on this perspective. Republican governors who have successfully used No Child and Race to the Top to advance their own overhaul efforts. Kline’s boss, House Speaker John Boehner, helped usher No Child into existence. There are even some divisions within Kline’s Republican majority on the committee. And Boehner (along with other House Republicans and Sen. Joseph Lieberman) are pushing to expand federal education policy by agitating for the revival of the now-shuttered D.C. Opportunity school voucher program. In any case, whatever the House Republicans will do depends on coming up with some sort of unanimous position on the role of federal education policy (if they have time to do so, a major question given their focus on fiscal matters) and whether they can get Democrats and Republicans in the Senate to go along (equally questionable).
2) A School Reform Mayor Emerges in San Antonio: When he embarked on his successful campaign to become mayor of San Antonio, Texas, two years ago, Julian Castro declared that he would make school reform one of his top priorities. This past week, he has made some baby steps by pledging to support a former city councilwoman in a San Antonio Independent School District race against one of the more-entrenched school trustees. He also wants to introduce a report card of sorts, measuring the success and failure of the district and its 16 counterparts in improving student achievement.
There is plenty for Castro to campaign against when it comes to San Antonio’s school districts, many of which poorly serve the 395,852 kids in their care. Just 53 percent of the eighth-graders in San Antonio Independent’s original Class of 2008 graduated on time while South San Antonio’s graduation rate is a mere 54 percent; the Edgewood district only graduated a mere 57 percent of its students. Even the relatively high-performing Judson district only graduates 73 percent of its eighth-graders; the Northside district does have an 89 percent graduation rate. When one digs deeper and looks at the poor black, Latino and white students being ill-served by the districts, the need for reform becomes even more apparent.
But the fact that San Antonio’ is served by 17 traditional districts means that Castro will have limited ability to directly influence their operations. Running slates of school board candidates — an approach taken with various degrees of success by Los Angeles mayors Richard Riordan and Antonio Villaraigosa, would be an expensive, time-consuming affair. Directly taking over San Antonio Independent or another district — the approach of such mayors as Chicago’s Richard Daley and New York City’s Michael Bloomberg — would still mean Castro would touch only a smattering of the city’s students. Fully consolidating the districts under Castro’s direct control is also likely to be a non-starter; Texas politics wouldn’t exactly countenance that anyway.
But Castro could take a page out of the playbook of former Indianapolis mayor Bart Peterson and get the power to authorize charter schools; he could even follow the path of former Milwaukee mayor John Norquist and launch a school voucher program. Both moves would likely win favor with the Texas state legislature and Gov. Rick Perry (especially given that Castro is popular for the moment) and would allow Castro to avoid the pitfalls of directly running an urban district (you know, that Adrian Fenty thing). More importantly, it would be a critical step away from the traditional district model, which has proven to be as obsolete as it is a failure in delivering instruction and curricula.
There’s plenty that Castro can do. But he will need to go full bore and be ready to take on the school districts and defenders of traditional public education in the district to make it happen. This means calling out school board members by name, taking aim at the woeful statistics, and devoting his bully pulpit to explaining why school reform must be a reality for the Alamo city. He will also need to mobilize parents and grassroots activists in order to create the conditions for school reform. In any case, Castro may be worth watching.
3) The Next Step for Indianapolis’ Charter School Movement: The Circle City struck a blow for the nation’s school reform movement a decade ago when then-Mayor Bart Peterson became the first mayor in the nation to get the power to authorize public charter schools without being tied to controlling a traditional school district. In that time, the city’s effort has proven to largely be a boon for kids who would otherwise become dropouts while offering mayors throughout the nation an important example of how to approach school reform.
But as the Hechinger Report notes in a report this week, the effort hasn’t exactly pushed districts towards reforming their own operations. Certainly the fact that traditional districts are hamstrung by state laws and collective bargaining agreements — the result of teachers union lobbying — is part of the problem. So is the fact that the cultures and leadership within the districts — especially the woeful Indianapolis Public Schools — stubbornly clings to woeful approaches to instruction and curriculum. But the limited impact of charters also has to do with that fetish of school reformers and traditional educationalists everywhere: Scale. In this case, scale actually does matter. Neither Peterson nor his successor, Greg Ballard, has authorized enough charter schools (or enough of the high-quality variety) to make the impact needed on traditional school operations.
The approach to charter authorizing embraced by Peterson (and by Ballard for want of interest or a better idea) was to provide Indianapolis parents with alternatives to traditional schools that serve segments of the student population that IPS and its sister districts ignored. Given that charters were still novel concepts for the Hoosier State, the cap on the number of charters that could be authorized, and the matter of avoiding some battles with either the school district or the state’s National Education Association affiliate, this made sense. But this approach also meant that Peterson and Ballard would never add enough charters to serve as competitors to the established order. Charters would nudge IPS in the right direction, but not necessarily force it to fully embrace reform. As for districts such as Washington Township and Pike Township? Their growing enrollments (fed by the flight of residents from the heart of Indianapolis that is served by IPS), and the lack of charters in their areas insulated them from addressing the low performance of their black, Latino and male students.
Meanwhile the city hasn’t exactly done a good job of luring high-quality charters into the city. Even before Peterson was forced to hand over the reins to Ballard in 2008, the city did little to close down low-quality charters. Peterson only shuttered one operation, a high school serving dropouts operated by the nonprofit Flanner House, was only shut down after evidence of financial mismanagement (which led to the ouster of the parent organization’s executive director). While the Knowledge is Power Program has become a key player in Indianapolis, Ballard hasn’t exactly brought in Green Dot, Aspire or any of the other big-name high-quality charter operators.
The result has been sort of a slow-mo towards reform. While charters are generally offering higher-quality curriculum and instruction, there still aren’t enough good-to-great options. There still aren’t enough charters throughout the city; only three are located in the city’s suburban townships. Meanwhile IPS can make noise about how charters are peeling off students from its enrollment (an argument that doesn’t hold water) while still operating the worst concentration of dropout factories in the Midwest outside of Detroit. And the other districts rest on their respective laurels, declaring that everything is fine even if that isn’t so; they’re not going to embrace any sort of meaningful reform unless they are forced either by the Indiana state government, economic necessity or the presence of charters in their midst.
Ballard and his charter school czar, Marcus Keraga Rausch (who cut his teeth working with education scholar Russ Skiba on studying American public education’s overuse of suspensions and expulsions), need to step up their authorizing efforts by adding at least 10-to-15 high-quality charter schools over the next few years. This advice also holds true for Peterson acolyte Melina Kennedy, who is running against Ballard this election year. The small roll-out has been nice, but not necessarily impactful. And the kids need more than just slow mo.