School reform: An outline for action

Needed: Adult Supervision

Our public school systems cannot be left to their own devices. If the record of the last few decades proves anything, it’s that oversight is needed. This oversight (or, you might say, “adult supervision”) has to be provided by people outside the system. Ideally it would come from independent players, parents, grandparents, taxpayers, and civic leaders willing to step up, do their homework to learn the facts about what’s ailing their schools financially or academically, and then organize to produce public awareness and pressure for change.

One re-occurring theme in the on-going national discussion of school reform is that due to the current structure of the public school system, the schools lack the proper incentives needed for them to reform and improve. Since students are assigned to the districts based on where they live, and there exists a near-monopoly on public tax dollars to fund them, poor performance has typically not been punished. In fact, until the No Child Left Behind law, the only ones who suffered as a result of the under-performing schools were the students themselves.

Thus, independent citizen activism and oversight are needed to begin to provide incentives in the form of effectively exerted public pressure. School reform experts Paul Hill, Christine Campbell, and James Harvey, outline the need for action in their book “It Takes A City”:

* “School system employees are the adults most affected by reform initiatives, and it is not realistic to expect them to change any more than the reform strategy’s incentives and pressures make necessary.”

* “…Leadership must come, strongly and for a long time, from outside the system. Superintendents are good sources of day-to-day leadership, but given their short tenures, their efforts are not enough. Leadership must come from a longer-lasting source and one that is both more deeply rooted in the community than a superintendent and less protective of the status quo than a school board or district central office.”

* “Every community embarking on a serious reform strategy needs a long-lasting civic reform oversight group. Without such a group…reforms are inevitably short-lived and poorly executed. Members of a civic oversight group should include the leaders of community institutions committed to the city’s future, not to the interest groups that normally dominate education policy.”

* “A civic reform oversight group cannot buy elections or prevent a well-mobilized majority from having its way. But it can develop an election strategy, provide public information, and manage voter turnout initiatives, all indispensable parts of reform implementation.” (Hill p. 107,111)

Parents are the natural constituency to fill out the ranks of these independent watchdog organizations. In fact, many parents who lack the financial ability to send their kids to private schools or to move into a school district that performs better have plenty of motivation to organize and apply public pressure:

“…a civic reform oversight group needs to build a broad constituency for the reform plan, especially among parents…City leaders have to seek a grassroots constituency from the beginning…” (p.117)

There is no doubt that the task of organizing politically can seem overwhelming, particularly for those who haven’t been politically active in the past.

“These political prescriptions can be daunting. They definitely involve senior civic leaders in a long-term campaign of educational, financial, administrative, and political change. The implicit message is clear: reform…is for the desperate and determined, not the faint of heart. Once city leaders take responsibility, they must be prepared to keep it for a long time…the alternative is to go back every few years and start over to do it again.” (p.118)

Thomas Sowell comments on this in his book “Inside American Education”:

“For reformers to have any hope of success, it is necessary but not sufficient to mobilize enough political muscle to win decisive votes in state legislatures and in Congress, over the determined opposition of the National Education Association, the National School Boards Association, and many other vocal, organized, well-financed, and influential members of the educational establishment. It can be done. It has been done. But it is not sufficient.

“Even after reformers have mobilized enough political support to defeat the education establishment, whether in Washington or in state legislatures, they are much like a nation which as advantages of firepower over its enemy, but lacks enough troops and staying power for a long war of attrition. If reform legislation is set forth as general principles which must later be given specific interpretation and implemented by state education departments, district superintendents, and school principles, then this is a war of attrition which the educational establishment is almost certain to win. For reformers to win, they must mobilize their superior firepower for decisive assaults on strategic objectives.” (Sowell p. 297)

At the end of the day, the public school establishment cannot and will not reform itself, any more than King George’s England two hundred and thirty years ago. And as the case was in the 1770s, the work to be done is in the political arena. According to Thomas Sowell,

“All the ingredients for a successful educational system already exist in the United States…” “The political task is enormous, but no more so than the task of others before who have made vast changes in the social landscape of the United States, or who created this country in the first place. The stakes today are our children’s future—and nothing should be more worthy of the effort.” (Sowell p. 303:)

The cynics may not believe change is possible or people will act, but on a daily basis Americans all over the country are getting fed up with the operation of their public schools and are organizing in order to do something about it. These people recognize that the only real fix will come if enough citizens organize, argue their case, and convince enough of their neighbors to join the struggle.

Political Power v. Political Power

The unions are simply playing the role they were created for. Their charge is the well being of the teachers, plain and simple. Now, parent and taxpayers need their own kind of union. Networks need to be formed to work for their interests: improved academic performance and increased economic efficiency. The good intentions of the school systems is insufficient; public institutions only really respond to public pressure in the arena of politics.

Up until now, there has been no counter-veiling force to that of the teachers unions. Fortunately, people are now recognizing this fact, and as Myron Lieberman has pointed out, the political power of the unions is now front and center in the discussion of how to improve the public schools. According to Lieberman:

“The most hopeful development relating to the NEA/AFT is that they have become a political issue. More precisely, their political role can no longer be obscured by cant about the ‘bipartisan’ or ‘nonpartisan’ nature of public education…

“Labeling education ‘nonpartisan’ and having schools managed by ‘non-partisan’ school boards and state departments of education has shielded public education and teacher unions from the kind of scrutiny accorded ‘partisan’ or ‘political’ issues. The fallacy inherent in a ‘nonpartisan’ approach to education is not a recent discovery, but public perception has lagged far behind the political realities. The controversies over state aid to education, school integration, and school choice illustrate the political nature of educational issues. Nevertheless, their political nature has been muted by the belief that we should take politics out of education.” (p. 283)

Paul Hill and his colleagues suggested the creation of “an overarching community oversight mechanism,” a group of citizens independent of the schools and school boards, which “would operate as an interest group.” It is this “interest group” that will provide the counter-pressure to the 800 pound gorilla of the teachers unions.

Originally posted April 2003.