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July 8, 2013 standard

The countdown may have begun for the end of John Deasy’s tenure. L.A. Unified should see its last days too.

One thing about the future of systemic reform in the Los Angeles Unified School District became clear last week after its board voted five-to-two to name longtime traditionalist Richard Vladovic as its president: It is on life support for at least the next two years. After all, the former L.A. Unified teacher and bureaucrat is a creature of the district’s old-school bureaucracy who has sparred with the reform-minded superintendent, John Deasy, throughout his tenure on the board; that, along with perceptions of Vladovic as a moderate, makes him a better representative for the interests of traditionalists such as the American Federation of Teachers’ City of Angels local (which backed his run for the top board seat) than either Bennett Kayser (who everyone knows is too  deep in the union’s pocket to even be considered independent), or wishy-washy types such as Steve Zimmer (who vainly held out hope that either traditionalists or reformers on the board, who don’t trust him, would nominate him for the top spot). Sure, Vladovic faces accusations of sexual harassment from his former chief of staff as well as a reputation for screaming at district officials. But none of that matters to traditionalists who wholeheartedly oppose reform.

So one can expect the district’s board to make it harder for families of children attending dropout factories and failure mills to leverage California’s Parent Trigger law as families at two schools — 24th Street Elementary and Weingard Elementary — have done within the past five months. The board took steps to do so last month when it approved a measure by Zimmer under which Parent Trigger petitions are “independently” verified (along with other bureaucratic procedures) that will stifle future school takeover attempts. No one should expect L.A. Unified to embark on efforts such as the now-shuttered initiative to spin off 198 schools to charter school operators, families, community groups, and groups of teachers; one may also see the number of new charters approved by the district to decline significantly, especially since the move by the Golden State’s school board this past May to end its authorizing of charters takes away much-needed outside pressure on the district to expand school choice.

What else is clear? That the board majority will spar more frequently with Deasy, who has at least talked the talk on systemically reforming the district (even as he makes rather weak moves as striking a deal with the AFT local on a teacher evaluation plan that does little to actually measure the performance of teachers based on their success with the students they instruct in classrooms). Even before Vladovic stepped in as president, Deasy has done all he could to sidestep traditionalists and moderates on L.A. Unified’s board (with the implicit support of Garcia and other reformers). This included backing the successful lawsuit filed against the district by a group of Southern California families organized by activist Alice Callaghan (with backing from the school reform group EdVoice) over the district’s failure to use student performance data in teacher evaluations as required under the Golden State’s Stull Act. Within the last month, Deasy made clear that he would proceed with his plan to essentially move to a weighted student funding approach to budgeting, handing more dollars to schools serving poor and minority children while allowing principals to manage their own budgets; this partially defies the plan passed by traditionalists on the board to mandate the district to hire more teachers, guidance counselors, and other staff across the board regardless of the needs of the schools and the children they serve. [Zimmer was particularly displeased that allies of Deasy, including the Los Angeles Times‘ editorial page, were calling out those who supported the mandate for their fiscal and educational fecklessness.]

Vladovic and his allies on the board are unlikely to immediately hand Deasy his walking papers. After all, it wouldn’t play well to the public, who thinks highly of Deasy’s work so far, (and would recognize the move as a gift from the majority to the AFT local for its backing of their respective candidacies). Deasy’s immediate firing would also reaffirm L.A. Unified’s longstanding reputation as the district where reform is squashed before it yields fruit, as well as remind families about why they backed the reform coalition cobbled together by now-former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa that briefly controlled the district. But the majority (which includes new board member and occasional reformer Monica Ratliff) are likely to do as much as they can to make it harder for Deasy to proceed with his reform efforts. More importantly, Vladovic, Kayser, and LaMotte — who form the core of the majority — will start building a case against keeping him on the job beyond June of next year; while Zimmer is a wildcard of sorts (and is mindful of the election challenge he faced from reformers earlier this year over his wishy-washiness), his own issues with Deasy gives the big three a potential ally in their cause.

What will result from the sparring between Deasy and traditionalists on the board is instability within the district’s operations. The best of L.A. Unified’s school leaders, looking for clear direction from the central office, will find themselves looking for new jobs in order to get away from the developing dysfunction. Initiatives launched by Deasy that are already underway will begin to flounder as the new board majority pushes its own priorities. Deasy will be constantly undercut by Vladovic and his allies as they find more reasons to question his efforts to overhaul teacher performance management. The district’s bureaucracy will then backslide into the mediocrity and failure that is one reason why the district failed to evaluate 60 percent of veteran teachers and 30 percent of new hires during the 2009-2010 school year, before Deasy became superintendent.

Certainly Deasy has the advantages of popularity and a bully pulpit of sorts, along with a constituency of reformers on the board and throughout the district; he can rally families and other around his own efforts to tackle the district’s abuse of children in its care (including the abetting of the criminal abuse of students by the likes of former Miramonte Elementary School teacher Mark Berndt). But Deasy can no longer count on Villaraigosa and cannot expect much help from his successor, Eric Garcetti, who must keep in mind his own promises to the AFT local that backed his successful mayoral campaign (and whose own reform-lite approach essentially emphasizes playing nice with traditionalists). And given that reformers didn’t help Deasy with their losses in this year’s board races, the superintendent is in a weaker position than he was at the beginning of the school year.

Children forced to attend L.A. Unified’s schools, along with their families and other taxpayers, are the ones who will pay the price. It isn’t if they can easily escape. Sure, the number of children attending charters increased by 67 percent between 2009-2010 and 2011-2012; but charters still only account for 15 percent of enrollment (as of 2011-2012), according to the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools.

None of what is happen (and will likely play out) is shocking. The average big-city district chief executive stays on the job for a mere four years, according to the Council of the Great City Schools, largely because they lack the political constituency needed to keep their jobs for long tenures. The influence of AFT and National Education Association locals, who are the biggest players in school board elections, means that any reform-minded superintendent who angers the union will soon find himself out of work. Particularly in the case of L.A. Unified, the district’s penchant for forcing out reform-minded school leaders, board members, and even teachers such as the legendary Jaime Escalante makes the likelihood of Deasy remaining in the top job beyond 2014 even less likely than in other districts.

Reformers within the City of Angels have learned all too well that it is difficult to keep together coalitions within a district that sprawls throughout Los Angeles County (including 31 smaller cities as well as the City of Angels itself). There are also no easy alternatives. Mayoral control of the district would be the best approach. But that’s unlikely, especially since Garcetti is even less likely to pursue it than Villaraigosa, who attempted such an effort seven years ago with little success. A more-optimal solution would be for L.A. County’s board of supervisors to play a prominent role in spurring reform and perhaps, attempt a takeover of the district. There’s also building stronger relationships with L.A.’s city council, including players such as Bernard Parks, who realize that they must play stronger roles in overhauling L.A. Unified. But both approaches will take more time than children and their families can afford.

Just as importantly, it is hard to justify keeping L.A. Unified around as is. Legendary hip-hop star Ice Cube is correct in declaring yesterday that City of Angels’ children and adults are victims of the district’s systemic academic failures. Keeping L.A. Unified around is also hard to support from a fiscal perspective. L.A. Unified’s unfunded retired teacher and school employee healthcare costs increased by 26 percent between 2011 and 2012, according to its most-recent annual report; it now has $4 billion in costs that its taxpayers must somehow pay down in the next 17 to 30 years. [None of this, by the way, includes its portion of the state Teachers Retirement System’s $87 billion pension deficit.] Considering that L.A. residents (along with their counterparts in other cities served by L.A. Unified) are struggling with pension shortfalls for their respective city governments, it’s hard to justify L.A. Unified’s existence.

So reformers should start a more-radical reform effort that is essentially geared toward abandoning L.A. Unified’s traditional district model. This starts with rallying more families to use the Golden State’s Parent Trigger law to take over schools that their children attend. Even with the new restrictions put into place, reformers could work with families to navigate the rules in order to advance school takeovers. Working with existing charters such as Green Dot to expand their capacity for serving more children would also help. Reformers should also work with the single-parent households, immigrant families, and others in the grassroots (along with reform-minded teachers and school leaders) to engage in DIY education efforts.

Finally, it is time to break L.A. Unified apart into smaller districts along the boundaries of the 32 cities it serves, then abandon the traditional district model for each of the new districts altogether, putting schools into the hands of an array of charter school operators, community groups, families, and others. L.A. Unified’s bureaucracy has proven long ago that it is impervious to change in its current form. In an age in which scale is far less important than providing children with high-quality teaching and instruction — and after decades of evidence showing that the traditional district model is no longer worth preserving — there’s no reason to keep things as they are. Breaking up L.A. Unified, along with other reforms, would be good for children and families.

May 23, 2013 standard

What Chicago’s children need now is the expansion of high-quality school choices.

As you would expect, the American Federation of Teachers’ Chicago local and other traditionalists are none too pleased by Chicago Public Schools’ decision to formally shut down 49 of its underutilized schools. Karen Lewis, the notoriously bellicose head of the AFT local, the Chicago Teachers Union, declared in a press released earlier this afternoon that the decision has led to a ” day of mourning for the children of Chicago” and promises to follow up on her threat to recruit someone to run against Mayor Rahm Emanuel when he comes up for re-election two years from now. Others such as national AFT President Randi Weingarten and MSNBC commentator Jeff Johnson have embraced the Chicago AFT’s talking point that the Second City district’s school shutdowns will lead to more children being murdered and endangered because some will have to go through more-dangerous neighborhoods in the city just to attend new schools. Meanwhile traditionalists in the Second City continue to grasp upon an analysis by public radio outlet WBEZ-FM that shows that black children account for 88 percent of the schools that were targeted back in March for closure (despite making up two-fifths of enrollment) to declare that the district is essentially engaged in racial bigotry. The Chicago AFT, in particular, attempted to argue this in two federal lawsuits it is financing aimed at stopping the district from closing the schools. [For some inexplicable reason, a hearing on both suits will be held in July.]

Of course, Lewis, Weingarten and others fail to mention a few things. The first? That keeping schools open in itself won’t do anything immediately to address crime and violence outside its doors. The two decade long overhaul of the district undertaken by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and predecessor Richard M. Daley is slowly working to address the dropout crisis that is a long-term culprit in spurring crime in the city; schools can also play a role in economic renewal. But it cannot immediately address problems that are largely due to the Second City’s failures to embrace the Broken Windows approach to fighting crime that has made even New York City a much-safer place to live — a failing for which Emanuel should be held accountable (and one his predecessor never did as much as he could have to address) — and the gang activity fueled by the nation’s longstanding (and failed) prohibition on narcotics and marijuana. [Let’s also keep in mind that even with Emanuel and Daley fils not embracing more-aggressive crime-fighting tactics, the Second City is far less violent than it was two decades ago; the number of reported homicides declined by 53 percent between 1999 and 2010, according to Dropout Nation‘s analysis of U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics data.]

Meanwhile the argument that children attending soon-to-be closed may end up attending schools in more-violent areas fails to consider this fact: Some of the schools being closed are in some of Chicago’s most-violent neighborhoods, which means that children who attend school there are already endangered before and after they leave school buildings.  Seventy-nine incidents — including battery, assault, and burglary — were reported between May 2012 and May 2013 in the neighborhood home to the soon-to-be shuttered Yale Elementary School on Princeton Avenue and West 70th Street, according to Dropout Nation‘s analysis of crime data provided by the city. Around Attucks Elementary on East 51st and South State Street, there were 37 incidents within the past year — including nine incidents around the school building itself. One would take the arguments of Lewis and others seriously if they were calling upon Emanuel to revamp how the city addresses crime and other quality of life issues — including hiring more police officers to patrol neighborhoods on the South Side of town. But then, such demands from the Chicago AFT would mean that the city would not provide raises to its rank-and-file, which then means less money and influence for the union and its national parent.

As for the matter of race? The inconvenient fact is that black students are the ones most-affected by the shutdowns because they live in neighborhoods that have been contracting for some time. The fact that the district mostly serves black and Latino children, with white children making up just 9 percent of enrollment, doesn’t factor into traditionalist thinking. More importantly, black families — especially those in the middle class — are walking away from Chicago schools. Just 173,173 black children attended Chicago’s schools in 2010-2011, a 26 percent decline over enrollment for black students in 1991-1992, and according to data from the U.S. Department of Education; in fact, that decline — along with a 56 percent increase in the number of Latino kids attending Chicago schools in that same period — means that black children no longer make up the majority of enrollment.

Chicago can’t keep open 50 school buildings if there aren’t enough kids attending them — and it definitely can’t keep 280 additional underutilized buildings open for long. It definitely can’t do so when it also faces a budget deficit of at least $600 million for the current fiscal year, which, along with a looming deficit of $1 billion, is forcing the district to finally take action to shut down half-empty schools. There’s also its defined-benefit pension deficit, which is officially reported as being $8 billion for 2012, but more-likely to be $11 billion, according to Dropout Nation‘s analysis of financial data using a formula developed by Moody’s Investors Service. The Chicago AFT, along with its allies, shares in the blame for these woes. After all, the union continues to embrace an old-school industrial union model that ignores both its consequences to children, younger teachers, and taxpayers alike; since the union also controls seats on the pension, it is also responsible for its fiscal mess.

Meanwhile all the carping over the school closings ignore the fact that Chicago, like its counterparts in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.,  is struggling with the same problems of overemphasis on scale over quality and choice that is inextricably linked with the traditional district model. Certainly Chicago is a better-performing district academically than it was two decades ago; the percentage of functionally illiterate fourth-graders declined from 60 percent to 52 percent between 2003 and 2011, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, while the percentage of students reading at Proficient and Advanced levels increased from 14 percent to 18 percent during that time. But middle class families of all backgrounds are no longer willing to wait for the district to improve further and are willing to leave for suburbia in the hopes of sending their kids to district schools that turn out to be merely mediocre. It is why two out of every five kids born in the city in 2005 did not attend kindergarten in traditional district schools five years later.

For poor and lower middle class families — including those from Latino backgrounds who are increasingly becoming the face of the Second City — the district’s struggles with underutilized buildings and battles with the bellicose Chicago AFT — also makes it difficult for them to access any options, much less those of high quality. The school closings, necessary as they may be, force these families to send their kids to schools outside of their neighborhoods. The district’s Zip Code Education policies — which lead to 37,000 seats in the district’s best-performing schools to go unfilled — are especially galling. Meanwhile last year’s strike by the Chicago AFT was a particularly nasty reminder to them that they are beholden to the union’s antics unless they are one of the few who send their kids to the 119 charter schools in the city (or can access enough money to send their kids to private or parochial schools).The fact that the Chicago AFT has engaged in rank demagoguery against charter school operators meeting the needs of families even as its rank-and-file enthusiastically embraces choice (39 percent of Chicago teachers sent their kids to private schools, according to the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in a 2004 report, a number that has likely increased since then), is especially blood boiling.

What all of Chicago’s families need now is a wide array of high-quality school options both within and outside their neighborhoods. This is where Emanuel must step up on their behalf. He should immediately move to eliminate the district’s school zones, which would open up those 37,000 seats. Emanuel should also build upon predecessor Daley’s Renaissance 2010 initiative to launch new charter schools in the city. This includes teaming with major charter school operators such as KIPP, as well as teaming up with outfits such as the Black Star Project (which already provides tutoring to kids in the city) to launch new charters in the neighborhoods affected by the school closings; the current plan to authorize 17 new charters is not even close to enough, but either for the affected neighborhoods or for those in the city’s North Side, where overcrowded schools (and the district’s inability to meet demand) is the norm.

Chicago should also lease space in the soon-to-be-shuttered district schools, embracing the space sharing approach pioneered by New York City in bringing charters to Harlem and other communities. Enacting a Parent Trigger rule that would allow families to take control of — and overhaul — failing schools that remain open is also an important step to expanding choice within neighborhoods.

Emanuel can go even further by fostering the development of blended learning by outfits such as Rocketship Education, and DIY education efforts by families, churches, and community groups in the city. The latter, in particular, would help Emanuel build bridges with those who legitimately feel that the city hasn’t fully considered the impact of the shutdowns on their neighborhoods. It would also put the Chicago AFT on the defensive; after all, it will be harder for Lewis to claim that her union is engaged in social change when the union opposed the expansion of school operations by the very people she claims she cares about.

The time is now for Chicago to move beyond school shutdowns — and away from the traditional district model. It is the only way all of our kids in the Second City will have the good and great schools they deserve.

May 7, 2013 standard

School reformers in Baltimore, along with those in the city looking to keep the city from becoming the next Detroit, can’t help but be pensive about yesterday’s news that Andres Alonso is departing as chief executive officer of its traditional district to take a gig at Harvard University’s education school. For most of the past six years, the former special ed teacher and protégé of former New York City chancellor Joe Klein has won national acclaim for his efforts to overhaul the district. This has included successfully pushing the American Federation of Teachers local to agree on including student performance data in teacher evaluations, reduce the overuse of suspensions and expulsions that help put far too many kids on the path to dropping out (and fail to address the illiteracy and academic struggles that lead kids to act out in the first place), firing three-quarters of the principals who were on staff when he took the job in 2007, and launching an intra-district school choice effort for middle schoolers and high school students.

Alonso has also garnered acclaim for his efforts to improve how Baltimore serves the young black and Latino men who make up 44 percent of its enrollment. Over the past few years, the district launched two all-male schools as well as garnered support from George Soros’ Open Society Foundations for a project that used art to address the effects of low-quality education on young black men. He also proved to be the rare school leader willing to publicly expose test-cheating by three schools and hold principals accountable for the fraud. He particularly showed backbone last year when he proceeded to fire two principals whose schools were engaged in test cheating over the objection of the the American Federation of School Administrators affiliate. And Alonso managed to achieve some decentralization through his Fair Student Funding weighted student finance effort, which put 80 percent of the district’s budget into the hands of principals on the ground. Although the district has been criticized by Maryland’s Office of Legislative Audits for problems such as failing to collect $1.9 million in debts owed to it since 2009, Alonso has generally managed the district’s operations well.

Given the woes still facing the Baltimore district —  and the possibility of Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley handing back majority control of the state-controlled school system to the generally inept city government — one can’t be blamed for fearing that Alonso will be succeeded by someone who can’t keep the overhaul going. Yet the worries about who will replace Alonso ignore the fact that Baltimore hasn’t made nearly as much progress in improving the quality of teaching and curricula under his watch as publicly perceived. More importantly, Alonso’s Departure — and the work he has done in decentralizing district operations – – offers reformers an opportunity to finally move away from a traditional district model that would be ineffective in helping students succeed no matter who sits in the top executive’s seat.

Certainly in some respects, Alonso’s work has reaped promising results. Baltimore’s five-year promoting power rate (based on eighth-grade enrollment) increased from 70 percent for the Class of 2007 to 80 percent for the Class of 2011, according to Dropout Nation‘s analysis of data from the U.S. Department of Education. The percentage of Baltimore fourth-graders performing Below Basic in math (as measured on the National Assessment of Educational Progress) declined from 36 percent to 32 percent between 2009 and 2011. Out of school suspensions declined by 27 percent between 2006 and 2009 (the most recent years available), based on DN analysis of civil rights data collected by the U.S. Department of Data. The number of high school students taking Advanced Placement, courses, still abysmal by any measure, doubled between 2007-2008 and 2010-2011.

Yet Alonso still didn’t achieve much in improving literacy, especially in the early grades, with the percentage of fourth-graders reading Below Basic increasing from 58 percent to 60 percent in that same period. Alonso particularly struggled ending Baltimore’s status as the fourth-highest among big city districts that participate in NAEP’s Trial Urban District Assessment in illiteracy among young men of all backgrounds. The percentage of young men in fourth grade who read Below Basic increased from 62 percent to 66 percent in the same period (the percentage of functionally illiterate female peers increased from 55 percent to 56 percent in the same period); in fact, Baltimore made less progress in stemming literacy among young men than Detroit, which reduced the percentage of boys reading Below Basic by three percentage points in that same period.

Baltimore has done an especially poor job in improving academic achievement of young black men in its care. Sixty-nine percent of young black male fourth-graders eligible for subsidized school lunch read Below Basic in 20011, a two percentage point increase over 2009; it keeps its place as the seventh-worst big city district in literacy for young black men in fourth-grade (after Cleveland, Milwaukee, Detroit, D.C. Public Schools, Fresno, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles). It only managed to bring down the number of eighth-grade young black men reading Below Basic declined by two percentage points between 2009 and 2011, a level of decline lower than that for six other cities, including Detroit (which decreased the percentage of eighth-grade young men who were functionally illiterate by 10 percentage points). Baltimore can’t claim any real success until it improves literacy instruction for young black men.

So Alonso didn’t accomplish nearly as much as he could have in improving student achievement. But given the straits Baltimore was in when he arrived six years ago (including having embarrassed itself by submitting an error-ridden budget), he couldn’t get to everything. More importantly, it is hard to believe that he could accomplish more given the changes in the political landscape he was facing. It isn’t just about upcoming negotiations with the AFT local over the current contract, which expires this year. The district’s board, criticized for bending to Alonso’s will far too often, would likely have pushed to weaken his hand in order to keep up appearances. Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, looking to bring control of the district into city hands (and gain some of the authority over education gained this year by Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker), would have likely pushed the board members she appoints to make Alonso’s life a lot less charmed. While Rawlings-Blake and Alonso have worked well in the past, her own ambitions (which likely include running for governor) and penchant for power grabs probably factored as much into Alonso’s decisions as the likely peace that will come with a Harvard faculty spot.

These realities are reminders of another reason why it is so hard to overhaul districts — and why the traditional district model has become obsolete: The inherent instability that comes with being a chief executive of a traditional district. Big city district bosses wear out their welcome after three or four years largely because they lack the political constituencies within districts to sustain their tenures. [Top bosses in smaller suburbia and rural districts tend to hold their jobs a couple of years longer.] This fact, along with the challenges that come with confronting the toxic cultures that often pervade failing districts, explains why district turnarounds are so difficult to sustain. That Alonso managed to last as Baltimore’s top boss for so long is a testament to the structure of the district’s board (which, because Maryland’s governor and the city’s mayor appoint all but one of the board seats) is more akin to the mayoral control arrangement that has made overhauls of New York City, Boston, Chicago go more successfully than to that of traditional districts, whose boards are elected, and thus, are under the influence of AFT and National Education Association affiliates. But based on O’Malley’s comments as of late, it may not last long enough for Alonso’s successor.

This is a particular problem because Baltimore’s main city government is a mess. Rawlings-Blake has garnered well-deserved praise for tackling the city’s long-term economic woes — including the roll-out last month of a modest pension reform plan that features moving new civil servants to hybrid retirement plans that feature aspects of defined-contribution accounts. [Your editor suggests that districts and states do something similar and yet, more radical, on this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast.] But she has also criticized for such moves as refusing to hand over the e-mails of Rico Singleton, the city’s former information technology director who resigned last year after it was revealed that he had helped a girlfriend get a job for a vendor while he was a top official with New York City’s IT office. Rawlings-Blakes’ support for continuing the city’s three decades-long giveaways of tax abatements to developers for real estate projects that rarely work out  — an underlying reason why Baltimore is in such dire fiscal straits — doesn’t help matters either. Meanwhile the city’s municipal leaders have not been attentive to the quality-of-life issues most prominent on the minds of residents; unlike other big cities, Baltimore’s homicide rate has increased by 30 percent over the past five years. Considering how poorly the Baltimore district fared under mayoral control, merging it back into the rest of city government doesn’t make sense.

What does make sense is for Baltimore to abandon the traditional district model altogether. Alonso already started on that path with his push to hand over school budget decisions to principals. School funding is already voucherized in a way through the district in the form of its weighted student funding plan, which allots a base amount of funds for each student, then adds more dollars for each kid depending on their learning needs. Spinning off existing Baltimore district schools to communities, Parent Power groups, and charter school operators would be the sensible thing to do. The district can simply serve as a provider of services to the schools, including leasing buildings — of which it will have plenty thanks to the efforts of Alonso to get $1 billion in funding to renovate existing schools and replace aging buildings with new ones.

Another key step would be to provide families in B’more with high-quality school choices. This starts with expanding the number of charter schools in the city. The number of children attending Baltimore’s charter schools increased by 45 percent between 2010-2011 and 2012-2013, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in its annual report on market share. Still, just 15 percent of children attend charters largely because the district is charged with deciding whether charters can open within the city limits. This is akin to allowing McDonald’s decide whether a Wendy’s or Five Guys can open next door, restricting the growth of high-quality options. Maryland should hand over charter school authorizing either in the hands of an independent agency at the state level or grant authorizing power to independent organizations in the city, including Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland. A school voucher program should also be launched; but given that Maryland is a Democrat-dominated state, this isn’t likely.

As the Andres Alonso era comes to an end in Baltimore, it is also time to close the chapter on the traditional district model. The city’s children would be better for it.

May 2, 2013 standard

 

There aren’t necessarily a lot of bad things to say about Roy Roberts, the emergency financial manager overseeing Detroit’s dysfunctional traditional district who is leaving his post later this month. Throughout his two years on the job, Roberts did manage to build upon the work started by predecessor Robert Bobb by reducing the district’s annual deficits by 76 percent, as well as revamping some of the district’s operations. This was done in spite of battles with the district’s notoriously inept and corrupt board  — which resented being placed under receivership by Michigan’s state government — sparring matches with the American Federation of Teachers’ Motor City affiliate, and the uncertainty that came late last year after Michigan voters backed an effort by public sector unions throughout the Wolverine State to roll back the authority granted to Roberts and other emergency financial managers a year earlier through Gov. Rick Snyder’s successful passage of Public Act 4, a beefed-up state takeover law. At least the person who will succeed Roberts will not have to deal with such spectacular financial mismanagement as the district acquiring five floors in the landmark Fisher Building for $24 million (or more than the $21 million price tag paid by its owner for the entire building) and taxpayer money being spent on 160 unused BlackBerry smartphones and 11 motorcycles.

Roberts can also be credited for taking some occasionally tough steps in dealing with the AFT local, which has managed to remain equally inept in handling its own eternal affairs while still opposing nearly effort by Roberts to actually improve the quality of teaching in district-operate schools. This included Roberts’ move last year to impose a collective bargaining agreement after it wouldn’t come to terms with the district on an expiring contract. [The move forced the Detroit local to seek the help of national AFT President Randi Weingarten, who eventually came to terms with Roberts about negotiating a new deal.] Roberts, along with Snyder, can take credit for launching the Educational Achievement Authority, the school overhaul effort modeled after New Orleans’ successful reform initiative that is overseeing the turnaround of 15 failure mills Detroit formerly operated; this effort will help advance much-needed school turnarounds that the district has no capacity to do with any manner of success.

Yet Roberts didn’t accomplish his most-important task: Overhauling Detroit Public Schools’ academic and financial operations, and ending its woeful status as the nation’s worst-performing big city district. Certainly Roberts wouldn’t have been able to take on such a gargantuan task in a tenth of a score — and in the minds of some, it is amazing that he accomplished as much as he did in so little time. At the same time, Roberts could have taken greater steps in putting Detroit on the path to ditching the traditional district model which is an underlying reason for its systemic dysfunction and failure. And it is up to Snyder and whoever he chooses to replace Roberts to finally break away from a form of educational governance that hasn’t served Motown children and families well for far too long.

Let’s be clear about this: Detroit Public Schools is only an educational going concern in name only. Sixty-nine percent of its fourth-graders and 57 percent of eighth-graders were functionally illiterate in 2011, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Those students who have managed to overcome the district’s academic failures aren’t getting the comprehensive college preparatory curricula they need to stay on the course to completing the traditional college, technical school, or apprenticeships that make up higher education; just four percent of all middle-school students in Detroit — including 2.4 percent of black students — took Algebra 1 in 2009-2010. A mere 16 of the district’s 106 schools still in operation made Adequate Yearly Progress; even among those schools, just two of them received a letter grade of B or higher. It also remains one of the few districts that are so poor-performing that the five-year promoting power rates (based on eighth-grade enrollment), and four-year graduation rates (based on ninth-grade enrollment) for young white men are lower than the abysmal rates of high school completion for black and Latino peers; just seven percent of the young white men high school freshmen originally in Detroit’s Class of 2010 graduated on time, according to the Schott Foundation for Public Education in its annual report on the impact of the education crisis on young men.

Meanwhile the district remains in dire financial straits for the long haul. Even as the district’s enrollment is expected to decline by 28 percent over the next five school years, it must still pay off $2.2 billion in long-term and short-term debt (as of 2012). There’s also the payments Detroit must make to the Wolverine State’s virtually busted defined-benefit pension, which officially reported $22.4 billion in pension deficits as of 2011 (which, based on Dropout Nation‘s analysis, is more likely $30.4 billion, or 36 percent more than officially reported), and another $26 billion in unfunded healthcare costs; Detroit will eventually have to pay more than the $102 million it contributed to the state’s pension in 2012. Meanwhile Detroit is paying the price for decades of fiscal fecklessness. The district’s successful move four years ago to gain voter approval to float $507 million in bonds (with interest rates as high as 7 percent) to fix existing buildings now seems particularly senseless given the shutdown of 31 schools during Roberts tenure alone (and even more under predecessor Bobb; while the district was able to reduce some interests costs by floating a new bond last year to pay off $338 million, the last thing it needed to do was throw good money after bad.

Considering the circumstances, Roberts needed to push harder to overhaul Detroit than he has done. The district employs 218 central staff managers (as of 2009), nearly as many as it did back in 2009, even as the district employs 55 fewer principals than it did four years ago; in fact, Roberts hired 22 more bureaucrats between 2011 and 2012, reversing cuts predecessor Bobb made during his tenure. Roberts also didn’t spend enough time addressing the district’s academic woes. Only near the end of his tenure did Roberts announce that the district would undertake efforts to extend instructional time and provide early childhood classes throughout the district. Given that Roberts is now departing, this plan may not even see the light of day, but even if he did stay, it wasn’t exactly all that bold. None of it addressed the district’s underlying teacher quality issues. It also didn’t take steps to eliminate the district’s central bureaucracy and move school decisions to principals on the ground (as well as hold those school leaders accountable for poor performance). Meanwhile Roberts’ plan failed to offer solutions that would make families lead decision-makers in education such as launching school governance councils with parents holding majority sway over school operations (and being able to hire and fire school leaders) as well as launch a Parent Trigger provision that would allow families to take over and overhaul the failing schools in their own neighborhoods. The lack of a plan to partner with blended learning outfits such as Rocketship Education to provide students with high-quality learning options is also a problem.

At the same time, Roberts hasn’t helped Detroit’s cause on the financial front as much as he could. The new contract Detroit struck with the AFT local earlier this year ended up being more give-away than cost-savings measure. The new contract keep reverse-seniority (or last in-first out) layoff rules in place even as Michigan state government ended the practice two years ago as part of a revamp of its teacher tenure law; Roberts essentially agreed to restrict the district’s ability to reduce headcounts based on performance and at the same time, made the district even less attractive to high-quality early career teachers who would be the first to lose their jobs in a workforce reduction. Even worse, tenure has been granted to school counselors and other staff that doesn’t teach in classrooms and aren’t granted near-lifetime employment under state law. The contract also restores payouts to retiring teachers who trade in unused sick days; Roberts had canceled the payouts last year when he imposed the contract on the AFT local. While the payouts will be reduced from as much as $12,500 for each retiring instructor to $8,000 over the life of the three-year deal, it still means that the district is continuing a practice that has cost it $19 million in payments and wages for substitute teachers during its 2011 fiscal year alone.

Meanwhile Roberts missed opportunities for bold action, especially in abandoning the traditional district model. He, along with Snyder, undercut the boldness of EAA by reducing the number of Motor City schools it would take over from 45 to 15. Roberts also failed to embrace another opportunity for strong reform, in the form of plan developed by predecessor Bobb to convert 41 failing traditional schools into charter schools. Such a move would have allowed for families, community groups, teachers and charter school operators to take on efforts to provide children in Motown with high-quality education. While Roberts failed to act, others have stepped into the breach. Cornerstone Charter School, for example, launched two new schools leveraging the blended learning model, while a community group, Excellent Schools Detroit, is embarking on its own efforts to launch schools fit for kids. As a result, thousands of kids attending Detroit’s failure mills are still subjected to educational abuse and neglect.

The reality is that Roberts needed to admit that the Detroit district isn’t salvageable as is. As with so many traditional districts, its very scale made it perfectly workable in a time when children didn’t need college preparatory education in order to survive and succeed economically and socially. This isn’t so anymore. Providing children with high-quality education is critical to their success — and that of the communities in which they live. But save for a few districts such as New York City, the central bureaucracy model emulated for so long by Detroit (along with teacher contracts focused on seniority instead of performance, personnel policies that reward school leaders for failing upward instead of success, and the penchant for expansion instead of serving kids effectively no matter where they live) has never been and never will be able to adapt to the needs of our children today. But Roberts, whose career was spent mostly at General Motors (whose decline is another example of the consequences of focusing on scale over quality) would never take the steps needed to put Detroit’s bureaucracy out of its misery.

But the lack of boldness on Roberts’ part isn’t just his fault alone. While Gov. Snyder has done admirably in advancing reform throughout the Wolverine State, he didn’t demand Roberts to take even bolder steps as he should have, or if Roberts wasn’t willing to do so, remove him and bring in someone who would. Some of this is understandable; after all, he has the rest of the Wolverine State (including Detroit’s main city government, which is now in state receivership) to which to attend. But when a leader decides to take on the overhaul of a failing district, they have to put people in place who will do the Churchillian work of ending the rebuilding operations (or, in the case of Detroit, winding them down in a way that benefits children), demand that they achieve results, and be out front in providing those leaders the cover needed to take those steps. This is especially important in the case of Detroit, where city government leadership and school board members have long ago proven that they are unwilling to do anything other than spar among themselves and fill their pockets with taxpayer dollars.

Now that Roberts is leaving, Gov. Snyder should move quickly to hire an emergency financial manager who will actually be bold. That person must finally admit that Detroit should no longer be in the business of running schools and perhaps, not even be in the business of managing buildings. This starts with dusting off Bobb’s plan to convert some schools into charters, and actually hand off every school to high-quality operators as well as to communities and families. The district can lease the buildings to those operators, hire a building management firm to handle leasing and maintenance, and hand off information technology services to another firm. The district would only need minimal staff to oversee contracts as well as handle pension payments and other obligations the district owes. At the same time, Michigan should work to authorize new charters — and even launch a school voucher program — in order to expand choice opportunities for families in the Motor City.

Certainly Roberts did fine given the circumstances with which he was working. But he could have been bolder. Now it is time for Snyder to bring in a successor who will do for Detroit’s children what Roberts couldn’t do.

March 4, 2013 standard

No help at all. Detroit Mayor Dave Bing (L) is too busy struggling to break through the city government’s dysfunction to try to help Detroit Public Schools Emergency Financial Manager Roy Roberts deal with the failing district.

If there is one district that sorely needs the strong leadership that can come with mayoral control of schools, it is Detroit’s traditional school district. Once again under the receivership of Michigan’s state government, the Motor City’s traditional district remains the worst-performing big-city school operator in both the Midwest and the nation.  With 69 percent of its fourth-graders and 57 percent of eighth-graders being functionally illiterate in 2011, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, Detroit’s has become infamous for perpetuating educational neglect and malpractice. With revelations that Detroit paid $2 million to provide health insurance for ineligible dependents of district employees, bought 160 unused BlackBerry smartphones and 11 motorcycles on the taxpayers’ dime, and acquired five floors in the landmark Fisher Building for $24 million (or more than the $21 million price tag paid by its owner for the entire building), the district’s financial mismanagement has been even more spectacular. Meanwhile the efforts of Detroit’s state-appointed czar, Roy Roberts, and predecessor Robert Bobb to turn the district around has been complicated by lawsuits brought by the district’s lame-duck board, which has done all it can to reassert control in spite of its longstanding mismanagement.

This is a situation that calls for a district being put into the hands of a city’s mayor, who as the chief executive of city government, can both launch a strong overhaul effort and be accountable for its success or failure. But sadly, in the case of Detroit, the city government itself is on life support. After decades of fiscal and governmental mismanagement under the tenures of Coleman Young, the scandalous Kwame Kilpatrick, and Ken Cockrel, Detroit is in such dire shape that Wolverine State Gov. Rick Snyder moved last week  to put the city into state receivership. Current Mayor Dave Bing, who came into office four years ago with high hopes of success, has struggled to overhaul city operations, as the notoriously inept and dysfunctional city council has fought every move he has attempted to make. Even a simple deal struck by Bing to lease the famed Frederick Law Olmsted-designed Belle Isle park to the state for $6 million a year in annual rent fell apart after city council-members  in a fit of pique, declined to decide on approving it. Add in the fact that Detroit is one of the few big cities where violent crime rates have actually increased in the last decade, and one can conclude with some assurance that the district may actually be in slightly better shape than the city government itself.

The very plight of Detroit’s district — and the inability of either the city’s mayor or other officials to play any meaningful role in overhauling it — is a sobering reminder of why there is no one solution for advancing the much-needed reform of American public education. Certainly municipal officials at all levels should play active roles in overhauling failing and mediocre districts. In fact, the very success of district overhauls by big-city mayors such as New York City’s Michael Bloomberg and Rahm Emanuel’s predecessor in Chicago, Richard Daley fils (as well as Bart Peterson’s charter school authorizing efforts during his tenure as Indianapolis mayor, and John Norquist’s school voucher initiative in Milwaukee) makes clear that mayoral control — and even control of countywide districts by county chief executives — is likely the best approach to governance and systemic reform so long as the traditional district model remains the norm for providing education. But as seen in Detroit and in other municipalities plagued by corruption and dysfunction throughout district and main government operations, the very idea of mayoral and county executive control is not workable. These realities explain why we must continue to redefine American public education by moving away from the traditional district model.

One of the main successes of the school reform movement is that it has forced an abandonment of early 20th-century progressive era thinking that municipal officials should never be involved in district operations. Since the 1990s, when Boston’s Tom Menino and Chicago’s Daley moved to successfully take over flailing districts, mayors have increasingly understood that systemic reform is critical to their efforts to economically revive their cities. These days, it is the rare mayor who doesn’t isn’t attempting to either take control of a district, play a stronger role in district operations, or pushing for the authority to launch charter schools and early childhood education programs. The effort of outgoing Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (with the help of New York City colleague Bloomberg and other reformers) to weigh in on tomorrow’s elections for three seats on the board of L.A. Unified is just the latest example of municipal leaders embracing reform. While county government leaders haven’t played a prominent role in fostering reform — and only a smattering of states, notably Virginia, Maryland and Indiana, who put county governments in control of district finances  — there are some like Prince George’s County, Md., County Executive Rushern Baker who are attempting to do.

But mayoral or county leader control only works if the municipal governments themselves are doing well handling their main activities, including fighting crime and improving quality-of-life; one can dare say that the mayoral control efforts in New York City, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Cleveland are extensions of the decades-long efforts by city leaders to make their communities fit for children and families. But there are plenty of municipalities who have been struggling with corruption, ineptitude, and fiscal mismanagement for decades. In those situations, handing over control of a failing district (or even just a merely dysfunctional one) to a municipality doesn’t make sense at all. In some cases, the combining of dysfunctional districts and inept municipal governments may end up leading to even worse results for children, families, and taxpayers alike.

One example of a district better off not in the hands of a municipality is the one in DeKalb County, Ga., where your editor covered government and schools during the early parts of what is now a 16-year career. Late last month, Peach State Gov. Nathan Deal, Deal sacked six members of DeKalb’s board after revelations of infighting between board members and news that the district couldn’t even account for as much as $12 million it spent on textbooks. With the district at risk of losing its accreditation (for whatever it is worth), and evidence that the bureaucracy’s fiscal failures were so spectacular that it couldn’t even come up a budget for “common yearly expenses”, Deal exercised his privilege under state law to restructure the district, and get it back on track.

Certainly DeKalb could use the strong oversight of the main county government. After all, the district is on its fourth full-time or interim superintendent in three years; one former top school boss, Crawford Lewis, still faces charges of racketeering and bribery charges related to a scheme to funnel more than $80 million in construction contracts to a firm run by the husband of Lewis’ top lieutenant. One of his successors, Cheryl Atkinson, was widely criticized by district board members and families alike, quite likely for just not being what they wanted in a superintendent, as well as for not addressing a decade of fiscal mismanagement by her predecessors. Add in the fact that the district is doing poorly in preparing many of its kids for lifelong success — with only 29 percent of black high school students and 21 percent of Latino students took trigonometry and other college-preparatory math courses in 2009-2010 (according to the U.S. Department of Education), and one can surmise that the district is .Considering how poorly DeKalb’s board has governed its operations, the district couldn’t do any worse if put under the main county government. Or so would one think without knowing what’s happening on the ground.

But it actually could be worse. DeKalb’s main county government itself has been plagued by at least a decade of corruption. The current CEO, Burrell Ellis, is under investigation by a grand jury for allegedly rigging bids to favor those firms that supported his election campaign. His predecessor, Vernon Jones, who did manage to keep the county’s finances in shape, was plagued by allegations of sexual assault and illegally using campaign funds to support the passage of a 2005 bond referendum. Meanwhile allegations of other corruption — including alleged bid-rigging in the county’s watershed agency, and accusations of employees pocketing cash payments in exchange for giving out permits — have also sullied the county government’s reputation. Sure, corruption will always be as much a part of government as moves by legislators to name water as an official beverage. But in light of the DeKalb district’s problems, putting it under control of a main county government that isn’t exactly attending to its operations in a sensible way is not a good step at all.

Then there is Baltimore, whose board is jointly appointed by the city’s mayor and the governor of Maryland (and, until 1997, was run solely by the city itself), which has been one of the poster children for failing big-city districts. Certainly the district is nowhere near providing all children with high-quality teaching and curricula. Although Baltimore increased its five-year promoting power rate (based on eighth-grade enrollment) from 60 percent to 75 percent between 2001 and 2010 — and has reduced the percentage of young men overdiagnosed as learning disabled from 13 percent to 10 percent in that period — it hasn’t done all that well in getting students prepared for lifelong success. The percentage of functionally-illiterate fourth-graders (as measured by NAEP) increased from 58 percent to 60 percent between 2009 and 2011, while the percentage of eighth-graders reading Below Basic has remained unchanged (at 46 percent) over that time; and with only 1.2 percent of high schoolers taking Calculus (and another 4 percent taking statistics, trigonometry and other college-preparatory math courses), Baltimore is hardly helping the few students who do graduate get the knowledge they need for successfully attaining undergraduate or technical school credentials.

Yet Baltimore’s city government would hardly be fit to take back full control of the district under any circumstances. With a homicide rate that has declined by a mere 7 percent between 2001 and 2010 (and, unlike many cities, has increased by 30 percent over the past 25 years), Crab Cake City’s municipal leaders haven’t shown attentiveness to the quality-of-life issue most-prominent on the minds of citizens. Nor have any of the city’s top executives can claim to have had much success in reviving the fortunes of what was once one of the nation’s most-prosperous cities. Martin O’Malley (who has failed upward to become Maryland’s governor) achieved little of note during his tenure, while successor Sheila Dixon was forced out of office after coping a plea to a misdemeanor fraud conviction. Current Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake can claim credit for some modest fixes to the city’s busted pension, but she also taken flack for moves such as revoking City Council President Bernard Young’s box seats to Ravens football games after he withdrew support for continuing subsidies for a money-losing auto race. Considering how poorly Baltimore schools fared under full mayoral control, and how it is doing slightly better under partial state oversight, it wouldn’t make sense to put Baltimore back under the city government on a full-time basis.

To be sure, there are plenty of cities and counties equipped to take control of failing and mediocre districts. It would make sense for Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed to ask Georgia’s state officials to let him take control of the dysfunctional district, while it would make sense for Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard to do the same when it comes to the flailing Indianapolis Public Schools district. But there are plenty of cases in which states would do well just to embrace the Hollywood Model of Education, break down failing traditional districts, and push for the expansion of charter schools as well as the launch of voucher programs that can help poor and minority kids attend private and parochial schools fit for their futures. Keeping both failing districts and incompetent cities alive just doesn’t help anyone, especially children.

November 15, 2012 standard

Certainly one can expect traditionalists in the nation’s capitol to be vexed by Tuesday’s decision by D.C. Public Schools to shut down 20 of its schools with low enrollment over the coming two years. After all, the district has long-existed as a jobs program for the American Federation of Teachers’ Chocolate City affiliate and for politicians such as the ever-embarrassing Marion Barry, who used his tenure on the school system’s now-defunct board as a stepping stone to his long (and often-undignified) political career. Add in the fact that the school closing being initiated by D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson reminds traditionalists in the district of the similar move undertaken in 2008 by predecessor Michelle Rhee — and also reminds AFT local boss Nathan Saunders of the broken promises given to him by current Mayor Vince Gray to do his bidding — and one can expect plenty of uproar to come.

At the same time, families concerned about the school shutdowns do have legitimate concerns about providing their kids with high-quality schools in their own neighborhoods. This is an issue that neither Henderson or Gray (along with predecessors Rhee and Adrian Fenty) have addressed to the satisfaction of parents in the city. Which is why it is time for Gray to use the school closings as an opportunity to step up systemic reform in the city by expanding school choice, enacting a Parent Trigger law that can allow families to take over the closing schools in their communities, and encourage the development of blended and online learning options that can expand high-quality school opportunities and continue D.C.’s move away from the traditional district model to the Hollywood Model of Education.

Certainly anyone looking at D.C. Public Schools’ 45 percent decline in enrollment between 2004-2005 and 2010-2011 (or the longer-term slide, 65 percent slide in student population since 1959-1960) can easily understand why the district is shutting down the schools. After all, as a large traditional school bureaucracy with the scale to match, DCPS can’t keep open schools that aren’t filled without straining the resources it needs to continue the longstanding overhaul of how it provides education to the children under its care. For D.C. Public Schools, it makes no fiscal sense to keep open a school such as Kenilworth Elementary on the city’s Northeast side, which operates at 49 percent of the 350-student capacity needed, or  continue operating Springarn High School, which is only serving two-thirds of the students needed to be economically feasible. Given that the district is still undergoing a slow-yet-successful effort to improve the quality of teachers and curricula provided to its students, it isn’t exactly as many of the schools being shut down were models of high quality. Shaw Middle School, for example, is one of the district’s more-persistent failure mills with two out of every three students struggling in school, while Davis Elementary School has done little more than condemn its young students to economic and social despair. Families and children won’t miss much with their shutdowns.

Yet DCPS’ struggles in filling its buildings isn’t just a problem of declining enrollment.

Henderson’s predecessor, Rhee, made a strong move two years ago in forcing the AFT into a contract that now requires teachers to be subjectded to stronger evaluations using student performance growth data, and rewarding high-quality teachers with bonuses for good-and-great work. This is helping the district improve quality of teaching and reduce costly headcounts. But the deal didn’t fully unravel the decades of defined-benefit pension deals between the district and the AFT that have made district operations costly to maintain at current levels; the district (and ultimately, taxpayers) must now bear the burden of taking on a pension deficit that increased by 72 percent between 2009 and 2010 (the latest years available) alone (which will increase given that at least 3.75 percent of teachers and other employees with 30 or more years of time on the job will retire every year). Given those burdens, the district has to look at reducing the number of aging and half-empty buildings it maintains.

Another reason why these buildings are half-empty has to do with the district’s continued embrace of zoned schooling and other Zip Code Education policies that restrict the ability of families to choose schools within the district that are fit for their kids. A family in D.C.’s northwest side may live closer to a middle school near Rock Creek Park than to Shaw Middle School, but can only attend the latter because of school zoning. Gray and Henderson could easily move away from zoned schooling and offer robust intra-district choice (and Rhee and Fenty could have done the same thing); this could have led to more families attending those half-empty schools. Simply put, Zip Code Education policies not only hurt children by condemning them to failure mills and otherwise-good schools that don’t serve their needs, it makes it difficult for DCPS to utilize building capacity in more-efficient ways.

Photo courtesy of the Washington Post

The consequences for these problems are borne by families are rightfully concerned about being able to have high-quality school opportunities for their kids right in their own neighborhoods.

Certainly school choice opportunities aren’t as limited for D.C. families as they are for those in the Virginia and Maryland suburbs surrounding the city. As the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools reported this week in its annual market share report, charter schools already serve 41 percent of D.C. students (a four percent increase over 2011-2012), and more students will end up flocking to those schools. A parent in Anacostia, for example, can send their kid to any of the traditional district middle schools in the area, a KIPP school, another Center City charter (in Congress Heights), or one of the Achievement Prep academies — as well as to any charter school throughout the city — and if they qualify, even get a voucher from the recently-revived D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program and attend any of the city’s parochial and private schools.

Yet choice in the Chocolate City remains less than robust. For most of the past two years, families have complained about being unable to send their kids to middle schools within a decent distance from their homes. The fact that DCPS is closing four middle schools as part of its plan will not make them happy. Families are still going to want real choices in their neighborhoods — and given the high taxes they pay for laggard schools, are right to want it. That the schools are part of the life of their communities is an important consideration. Shaw Middle School, for example, gained stronger connections to the surrounding community two years ago after its then-principal, Brian Betts, was senselessly murdered by two teens attempting to rob him.

But it isn’t just about holding on to romantic notions about buildings where low-quality teaching was the norm. The high cost — both in time and transportation costs — of sending kids outside of neighborhoods, remains a concern, especially for D.C.’s poorest families; as Dianne Piche of the Leadership Council for Civil and Human Rights noted last year, single mothers, in particular, have to also think about their child care needs as part of the school equation. There is also the consequences of school shutdowns in dragging down communities. The shutdown of schools serving mostly-black students during the 1960s and 1970s as part of well-meaning school integration efforts were one reason why so many black communities fell into (and remain) in economic and social despair. There’s no sense in keeping open failure mills and dropout factories that drag down the communities that surround them. [Of course, such arguments can also be applied to the districts whose systemic dysfunction has led to those schools doing so poorly in the first place.]. At the same time, simply closing down schools without allowing for new schools to take their place is just as senseless.

This is an issue that neither Gray, Henderson, or the city’s school reform activists can ignore As Jeanne Allen of the Center for Education Reform rightly remarked yesterday, the city is failing to do right by children and families with its decision to allow DCPS to not put 11 of the soon-to-be shuttered buildings up for sale or lease to charters and parochial school operators. Sure, the fact that DCPS may work with some high-quality charters in the city to re-open three of the schools is heartening. But it isn’t good enough. Failing to allow for the expansion of school options alongside the DCPS will only make families angry, which in turn, will play into the hands of traditionalists looking to stop the very reforms Gray and Henderson are undertaking. Considering the dissatisfaction Gray and Henderson have already fomented among families of students being forced back into DCPS’s special ed ghettos, giving traditionalists another weapon is not a good thing As seen in Chicago, where the school closings under mayors Richard Daley and Rahm Emanuel (and the lack of more-aggressive charter school expansion and Parent Power efforts by both) have fed into the efforts of the AFT affiliate there to oppose more-aggressive reforms, dissatisfied families can easily end up on the other side, opposing all reforms because of the lack of responsiveness over a major concern.  So D.C. must expand choice and Parent Power in order to both satisfy families and fend off the opposition.

Abandoning DCPS’ zoned schooling policies would be a good first step. The next should be increasing the number of charters in the city. Gray can overrule Henderson and require the district to lease or sell the buildings to charter school operators, ensuring that there will schools for families in the affected neighborhoods. The district’s charter school board can also help by aggressively recruiting leading operators such as KIPP, along with community organizations and families, to launch new charters over the next few years. Replacing laggard schools with new operations (including charters) is the approach that Gray’s colleague in New York City, Michael Bloomberg, has used to great success in his reform effort. Gray could go further and encourage Parent Power in the city by successfully pushing the city council to pass a Parent Trigger law that can be refined to allow the majority of families in neighborhoods served by the 20 closing schools to take them over and revamp their operations. This would rally families in the city around reform by giving them the ability to be active players in shaping the schools that serve their children, as well as expands the notion of choice beyond simply escaping failure.

Gray could also stand behind more-robust school choice by ending his opposition to the D.C. Opportunity voucher program, and working with congressional leaders and Gray’s predecessor, Anthony Williams, to push for its expansion. The program already serves 1,584 of D.C.’s poorest children, but it can serve so many more. Demanding that President Barack Obama back away from his constant efforts to shut down the voucher program — and pushing for more kids to be served by it — would win goodwill among families tired of waiting for DCPS’ reforms, and also addresses concerns among those families about the district’s school closings.

An even greater opportunity lies with expanding online and blended learning opportunities, as well as fostering DIY efforts. As Tom Vander Ark noted earlier this month, these innovations can help reframe the issues around families — especially those from poor and minority backgrounds — gaining access to high-quality education. Embracing digital learning also accepts the reality that the traditional district model is inadequate for providing all kids with good and great teachers and curricula, as well as accepts the embrace of the Hollywood Model of Education in which American public education moves from a monopoly provider to a collection of schools and school systems. Gray and the city council could launch an initiative to attract Rocketship Education and other blended learning outfits to the city, which in turn, expands school options. Allowing for the creation of virtual charters would also help. The city’s school reform players, including Atlantic Monthly owners David and Katherine Bradley could also fund a series of digital learning and DIY learning efforts throughout the city.

The DCPS school closings doesn’t have to be the loss of schools for families. Gray should take advantage of the situation to push for reforms that expand the array of high quality school choices available to every family. And serve as another example for reform-oriented mayors throughout the nation to the benefit of all children.