I respect reform advocate Andy Smarick for his willingness to consider some of the problems that come with the reformster movement in education. Yes, he steadfastly advocates for choice and charters, and yes, I think he's wrong about many things. But he wrote a long series of posts about the inherent tension between conservative values and conservative support for reformy stuff (here's my response to one of them), and he was a practitioner of respectful and reasonable dialogue before reformsters decided that it would be a good PR move.
So I was all eyes when Smarick connected with Edushyster for an interview. It's right here, and you should read it.
Democracy vs. School Choice
Smarick and 'Shyster (which sounds like an excellent vaudeville act) get directly to one of the great tensions in the choice movement-- the tension between democracy and choice.
The reformster theory is that school choice ought to be democracy on steroids, a free market where every customer gets a direct vote on What School Looks Like and any entrepreneur can enter that race.
In practice, that seems to be very much what does not happen. Every place that people have been given the chance to "vote with their feet," they have lost all other voice in the process. (Not to mention that when a city moves to a "vote with their feet system," non-parent taxpayers end up with no vote at all-- not feet, not ballots, not anything.) This is not playing well. As Edushyster puts it
In recent elections, voters in both Chicago and Philadelphia basically
shouted that they want more say over their schools. Is it just me, or
does it seem like if you give voters a vote over whether they want an
actual vote vs. the vote with their feet kind of vote, they always seem
to vote for the *vote vote*?
Edushyster also throws in Camden and Newark as examples of how choice has led to disempowered and denocracy-free cities. And Smarick... agrees.
I totally agree with you. State takeovers
of urban districts are sometimes necessary but they absolutely have to
be temporary. It has to be a way to decentralize power to give parents
more choices. It can’t be something that exists in perpetuity because
then what you get are disempowered communities that are even more
disempowered. And that’s no way to have these cities thrive in the way
we want them to.
Edushyster bores in (well, not really "bores." Edushyster is the smartest, sharpest Manic Pixie Dream Girl of the edublogger world and I'm pretty sure she could get the toughest interview subject to just give her his car). If choice is so great, why don't citizens get to choose their choices? Why don't the citizens and families get to decide what choices they get to choose from? And again... Smarick agrees.
You’re right. I think this is a failure
that I and lots of other people who have done this work are guilty of.
We’ve had this urgency about changing things and have done too little to
go into these places and have long conversations about, say, what does a
new school board look like?
The School Governance Question
In the interview, Smarick raises an issue that I've watched him wrestle with a few times, and his wrestling has led me to do some mulling of my own-- how do you manage governance of a schoo;l system?
The school board model has the virtue of being good old direct democracy. But I suspect that it has upper and lower limits. When we get to the huge urban systems, is a board member who is representing a million voters any more responsive to the customers than a guy who's unelected CEO of a unaccountable charter corporation? On the other end of the scale, we have my small district where, in an not-unusual state of affairs, we have three people running for five empty seats this fall. If you imagine that's not going to end well for us, all I can say is that your imagination is on the mark. And all of that is before we get to the issue of a highly technical and complex operation being run by a bunch of elected amateurs. Sadly, that is still better than having a school system run by unelected amateurs, but it's still not optimal.
We just assumed that democratic control
meant that a city had a single school board and that that school board
owns all public schools in the district, makes decisions about all of
the contracts, makes decisions about all of the principals, makes
decisions about where kids go to school based on these residential
zones. That is one form of democratic control. What I’m saying is that
we could have a different set of rules that govern these boards so that
you don’t give one board all of that authority. I don’t think you can
have the kind of elected school board we’ve had for 100 years and
simultaneously have community and parental empowerment.
It's an interesting idea, but almost impossible to conceive of working combined with a non-geographical school system.
Why the free market is always going to break Andy Smarick's heart
If there's one thing I've learned in my years of reading about school reform, it's that free market fans have some romantic and idealistic notions about the free market. In fact, it may be that what defines the different camps of the edu-debates is what part of the picture we are idealistic about (and therefor prone to overlook the problems of).
Smarick doesn't care for the way that Choice Systems seems to descend into Not Much Actual Choice Systems:
...if it’s wrong for the government to tell
you where you have to go to school based on where you live, it’s no
better if you have a system of choice—and I’m using air quotes here—but
there are in fact no choices because all of the schools look the same.
Choice is only choice if there are options.
But in a free market, this sort of leveling effect is an absolutely predictable outcome. When your edupreneur and his hedge fund backers set up a charter school, they are not saying, "What quirky specialized school can we create in order to insure a broad range of choices in the total system?" The total system and its range of choices is not their problem. Their problem is drawing in enough customers to make the enterprise worth their wild. And so they, like most of the other edupreneurs in the market, will chase the larger, more financially sustainable, section of the market.
The clearest parallel is the cable tv system. We were going to have thousands of channels, a broad and awesome world of choice. Bravo, Art & Entertainment, Music Television, the History Channel, the Learning Channel, two comedy channels-- we were going to have amazing choices and slowly but surely, as they chased the better parts of the market, they all deserted their original mission and became fun-house mirror versions of each other.
The free market does not love variety. Occasionally an outlier will strike it rich-- and what happens next? Everyone else rushes to imitate.
Smarick is also not a fan of unending government interference with the education market, but this, too, is inevitable. And not (just) because government has trouble keeping its grubby hands off anything.
When you let free market forces loose near society's most vulnerable citizens, bad things inevitably happen. The free market needs the freedom to experiment, but nobody is very enthusiastic about using school children as guinea pigs (and besides, some choice players have not played very nicely) and so there will be calls for government oversight. Plus, because in so many states it was the charter fans who brought the government into the game in order to get political access to the market-- well, you know that once government gets out in the game, it's nearly impossible to get it out. PLUS! When free markets mature, the power players inevitably "team up" with government to make sure the system favors them and not any new interlopers (see examples from Standard Oil to Microsoft).
Short answer-- no free market school system is ever going to be left alone to blossom and bloom on its own.
One last great moment from the interview
Edushyster: This feels to me to be a major
contradiction at the heart of the Smarick vision. That on the one hand,
parents are going to be empowered to choose their own choices, but on
the other hand, all of the choices will be part of an accountability
system that rewards a single definition of success. Am I wrong?
Smarick: That’s where you and I will probably agree
and I disagree with a lot of reform folks. I think that we have systems
that focus on a narrow set of metrics, inevitably we get schools that
respond just to those metrics.