Pay Attention to History, or Why Andy Rotherham is Off-Target on What Mitt Romney’s education policies may be: When it comes to presidential candidates and policy, it can be easy to get caught up in the old-school biases of traditional politically partisan thinking. In the process, one can fail to realize how the policies of predecessors in the Oval Office (along with one’s to policy players) tend to all but assure that a candidate tends to stay the course. More often than not, the successful presidential candidate realizes once he wins office that the nature of federal policymaking makes it extremely difficult to step away from current courses of action. More importantly, the influence of policy players in ascendance, the iron triangle relationships formed during a predecessor’s tenure, and the president’s own recognition that his predecessor was probably correct in his course of action, often means that those wonderful campaign slogans are dropped rather quickly once a president gets into the day-to-day role of running the national government’s executive branch.
This can be seen in foreign policy, with Barack Obama — who proclaimed himself an opponent of George W. Bush’s policies on Guantanamo and the invasion of Iraq — essentially adopting much of his predecessor’s positions once entering office; Bush, in turn, did the same thing, deriding Bill Clinton’s military interventions in Somalia and Bosnia, before engaging in the same sort of adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. And this axiom is even more applicable when it comes to federal education policy. This is what my friend, Andy Rotherham, would be able to see if he took off those dusty goggles of traditional political partisanship (which was evident in his off-the-mark criticism of my latest American Spectator column on Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s likely education policy agenda as president) and paid attention to history.
It is easy for those who haven’t paid attention to the history of the modern school reform movement to think that federal efforts to spur reform started with George W. Bush and the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act 11 years ago. This isn’t so. No Child was the first great leap in advancing reform after a series of small, fitful steps that began three decades earlier when the Reagan Administration released A Nation at Risk, the pathbreaking report that articulated the case for reform that was already being made by chambers of commerce in southern states and the governors at the helm there such as Lamar Alexander in Tennessee; by 1986, some 250 commissions had been launched focusing on crafting the first wave of curricula standards, and implementing the second wave of standardized tests (that began as a result of Dwight David Eisenhower’s signing of the National Defense Education Act in 1958). By 1989, Reagan’s successor (and Dubya’s predecessor), George H.W. Bush, would take an even more-explicit step towards a more active federal role in spurring reform by convening the nation’s governors to start turning lip service about reforming schools into reality.
By 1994, Daddy Bush’s successor, Bill Clinton signed into law the Improving America’s Schools Act, reauthorized version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that took some steps towards actually making states and districts accountable for the federal dollars they spent, expanded the scope of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (and in the process, shown light on the low quality of teaching and instruction in the nation’s traditional district schools), and fully embraced the charter school movement by providing federal dollars to support start-up efforts. Although the law didn’t achieve all that it intended, the passage of Improving Schools — along with the reform efforts undertaken at the state level by governors such as George W. Bush in Texas — would lead to the great leap forward in expanding accountability and promoting reform that would come with No Child seven years later.
One could say that any of these aforementioned presidents could have took a different path on education policy. Reagan declared on the campaign trail that he would abolish the U.S. Department of Education, while some of his staffers were none too happy about publication of A Nation at Risk. The rest, save for Bush II and his successor, Barack Obama, didn’t explicitly deal with education save for a few mild bromides about wanting a better education for kids. And until George W. Bush came along, education policy was a secondary aspect of policymaking for most White House occupants. Yet once in office, each of them paved the path towards advancing a stronger federal role in pushing states to meet their constitutional and civil rights obligations toward overhauling American public education. The coalition who make up the school reform movement — from the centrist Democrats and idiosyncratic conservatives and left-leaners in think tanks, to the corporate executives and entrepreneurs and their chambers of commerce, to the young urbanites, school choice-oriented libertarians and families in the grassroots — have proven skillful at ensuring that whoever ends up in the White House will pay plenty of attention to school reform, whether they like it or not. The fact that presidential policies often outlast their tenures also plays a part; so does the fact that nearly all presidential aspirants since Reagan got their starts as governors and state legislators, giving them an uncomfortable intimacy with how teachers’ unions and other education traditionalists influence school policy. And given that the nation’s education crisis is also at the center of the economic and social challenges facing the nation, no president can afford to embrace anything other than a strong, activist form of federal education policy.
In short, Romney, as artfully dodgy as he has been on education (and on everything else) this presidential campaign, will more than likely end up taking the same path on school reform if he wins office as Obama and Bush II and their predecessors. This doesn’t mean that Romney can’t end up in a different direction; as I mentioned in my latest American Spectator column, Romney’s penchant for going wherever the political winds blow means that he could easily end up in a different direction altogether. But given the realities that come with being president (along with Romney’s choices in advisers, which don’t include some of the most-fervent movement conservatives opposed to any federal role), staying the course on reform is what is likely to happen.
Holding All Schools Accountable, or Why Reformers Must Push for the Shutdown of Faltering Charters: As you already know, this week’s Dropout Nation commentary dissecting the faulty thinking of Diane Ravitch and other education traditionalists certainly attracted the attention of the once-respectable historian’s allies. It also attracted an important question from Michael Goldstein, the inestimable founder of the MATCH charter schools in Boston, about what reformers should do when it comes holding charter schools to the same high standards we demand for traditional district counterparts. Citing the move of the Los Angeles Unified School District keeping open the Academia Semillas del Pueblo, a failure mill in the City of Angels community of El Sereno that has maintained its longstanding status as one of the worst-performing charters in the entire district, Goldstein asked whether “charter supporters should hold charters to that higher standard for now?” That question, in turn, has hit upon one of the more-complicated debates happening within the school reform movement today.
As successful as school reformers have been in beating back opposition to the existence and expansion of charters, the movement still hasn’t dealt well with the claims from education traditionalists that many charters don’t make the grade. Over the past few years, this crowd has touted out the report by Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Options, arguing that it proves that charters are no better than traditional public schools. The fact that the CREDO study is flawed because it matches individual charter schools to groups of traditional public school students (along with the reality that the study is really a series of reports that shows the wide differences in charter school oversight in 15 states and the District of Columbia) has not stopped charter school opponents from using it as one of their most-forceful weapons in their rhetorical campaign. And when it comes to education, one must always remember that bad studies last forever and do even more damage than the verifiable facts themselves.
But education traditionalists do have one good point: That few poor-performing charters are ever closed or even turned around. As the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation noted in its report on school turnarounds, 72 percent of charter failure mills studied remained open and in abysmal shape five years later; 80 percent of traditional district failure mills remained open and perpetuating educational neglect as well. Only 15 percent of all charters opened since 1992 have ever been shuttered. While most charter schools do better or as well as traditional district counterparts (especially with poor and minority kids tossed away by so many in traditional public education), the fact that so many faltering charters remain open betrays the argument made by supporters that charters, unlike traditional public schools, can be easily shut down.
Certainly one reason why so many failing charters remain around lies with the fact that as bad as many failure mill charters may be, they may be better than the even worse traditional district schools to which kids were previously condemned. There is also the tension that comes between the important goal of improving quality versus the need to expand school choice; some parents may be satisfied with what the charter is doing even if the school is doing a terrible job academically. The need to allow for diversity in models of charter schools is also a factor; the current effort by reformers such as the Gates Foundation to focus more on building up the scale of existing top-performing charters such as KIPP is concerning because it could both stifle the development of new approaches to providing high-quality education and also foster the kind of bureaucratic failure that typifies traditional districts. And there is also the reality that some charter school authorizers, more-interested in collecting fees from open schools than on maintaining quality, will allow for charter failure mills to stay around.
But allowing these zombie charters to remain in operation has consequences for the entire school reform movement, especially when one considers that only 13 percent of Americans can accurately describe charters, the continued opposition to charters among old-school civil rights groups such as the NAACP, and the demonstrable evidence that players on the status quo side are more than willing to play fast-and-loose in their rhetorical and tactical gamesmanship. A sector that currently finds favor among federal and most state education policymakers can suddenly find itself to be whipping boys for politicians and activists — especially when the reality remains that there are still plenty of threats to the very existence of charters. More importantly, the willingness to tolerate failing charters makes it difficult to force the shutdowns of traditional district schools (as well as the overhauls and shutdowns of the failing districts themselves); if school reformers aren’t willing to hold the line on quality when it comes to their favored school operations, then districts shouldn’t be subjected to such standards either.
Ultimately, it is about meeting the very goal of the school reform movement — to offer all children, especially those in poor and minority communities — a high-quality education fit for their futures that makes it critical to address charter school quality. We can no more allow charter failure mills to perpetuate educational malpractice than traditional district schools because our kids deserve better than proverbial muck. A charter school that fails to help students succeed is no better than a traditional district school. And both deserve to be shut down.
So school reformers should do as the Los Angeles Times did this week and demand that failure mills such as Academia be put out to education’s glue factory. We should also applaud efforts such as that of Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson, who is looking to shut down failing charters as part of his own reform of the massive dropout factory that is his city’s traditional district. Efforts to force authorizers to better-monitor charter school quality — including tighter scrutiny on those applying to launch charters in the first place — would also help. There are other tools that can be used to advance quality. One could come in the form of Parent Trigger laws, which could be used by families to take control of failure mill charters the same way those laws are geared for advancing overhauls of traditional district schools; California’s Parent Trigger law can already be used for this purpose and this could also be applied to charters in other states where Parent Trigger laws are in place. Certainly charter school operators won’t like that possibility; in fact, it is one reason why Parent Power activists have not gotten as much support from the charter school movement as they should. But allowing for such takeovers would certainly put added pressure on those running failing charters to get their houses in order.
The school reform movement must hold the line on quality. And that means closing down failing charters that do as much damage to children as the traditional district dropout factories and failure mills we seek to rid eliminate.