November 15, 2010

Opportunity... to Succeed or to Fail

Justin Katz

Conservatives should rightly be skeptical about national education initiatives like Obama's Race to the Top. Short of violent coups, government would never expand — and totalitarians would never take power — if their promises weren't attractive. And we shouldn't forget that those who would collect power to themselves must do so within the social context that they find. If there's a popular movement toward school choice, for example, the government will find it more beneficial in the long run to co-opt and steer that movement, rather than striving to squash it.

That said, moments of adjustment offer real opportunities to turn the wheel in directions that the central planners hadn't intended. Such is the case with Providence public schools, where administration and union officials — duly acknowledging the pressure from U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Rhode Island Education Commissioner Deborah Gist — are actually working together, leading to such phrases in news reports as this (emphasis added):

No longer will the teachers’ contract stand in the way of school reform. If a school decides to adopt a longer school day or a Saturday academy, that overrides the collective bargaining agreement. ...

[Providence Teachers Union President Steve] Smith and [Superintendent Tom] Brady are working closely with the ABC School District near Los Angeles because that school system has figured out a way to work collaboratively with the union, and to invest principals and their staff with a lot of authority. In fact, Brady and Smith, accompanied by a small number of teachers and principals from the four schools, spent several days meeting with members of the ABC district during a recent trip to California.

If these changes result in the sort of reforms that we've been encouraging on Anchor Rising — giving administration real authority to pursue and responsibility for results in their schools — perhaps the public school culture will change in a positive direction. Time will tell, however, just how big an "if" that is. The chain of accountability is not clear. If administrators have authority but inadequate repercussions, the concerns of employees could be further cemented above the outcomes for students.

Without a school choice component — empowering parents to judge their children's schools, with the money allocated for those children in the balance — the hopeful reforms that we observe could turn out to be little more than delay tactics until the public eye looks elsewhere or, worse, a means of rerouting momentum toward further entrenchment of the approach that has so dramatically failed in Rhode Island and across the country.