Give Kids a Choice

Paul T. Hill
Portrait: Paul T Hill
Paul T. Hill Founder - The Center on Reinventing Public Education, Research Professor - The University of Washington Bothell, Former Nonresident Senior Fellow - The Brookings Institution

September 1, 1999

Here is an American paradox: We celebrate public education as a bulwark of democracy, yet tolerate public schools that perpetuate the disadvantages of poor children. Are we a nation of hypocrites? Or is something else going on?

We are not a nation of hypocrites, but we confuse the goals of public education with the means by which we provide it. As a result, a rigid, unproductive set of institutions has gained protection it does not deserve.

There is a better way: We can use competition to create schools that make and keep promises about high performance, and we can shut down those that do not make the grade.

But due to confusion of means and ends, proposals that might make public schools more effective and create new opportunities for children who are now tragically ill-served are sometimes characterized as threats to public education. Moreover, practices that now make schools ineffective are mistaken as defining virtues of public education.

What Is Public Education?

We struggle with two competing definitions of public education. The first is that public education is a commitment to specific political bargains, programs, job rights, and bureaucratic oversight. The second is that public education is a commitment to use any means necessary to ensure that every child learns enough to be able to participate fully as a citizen, earner, and parent.

The difference between these two definitions of public education is evident everywhere, but most painfully in the big cities. Aspirations are high for student learning, racial justice, and introducing disadvantaged students into the mainstream. Political and education leaders talk endlessly about the importance of high standards. But current arrangements are not capable of meeting our aspirations for public education. In the 50 largest cities and in many rural areas, public schools cannot teach students to read on grade level. Minority students fall further behind the longer they are in school, and more than half of them drop out before gaining a regular high school diploma.

A New Democrat from Mars would expect government and civic leaders to be desperately searching for new ways to bring all students into society’s mainstream and for educators to be experimenting with many new ways of providing effective schools for disadvantaged children. Someone would have to explain to her that leaders and educators are frozen by confusion of means and ends, and that the people who run and staff public schools have convinced everyone that the current arrangements are public education.

The way we now educate poor children isn’t acceptable because it does not work. Except in a few wealthy suburban areas (and New York City’s truly unique Community District 2), public school systems are designed to do almost everything but provide good schools. School board politics constantly disrupt schools, mandating new methods and programs to be piled on top of old ones. Schools can’t choose their teachers, and senior teachers can cluster in the best neighborhoods, leaving the most challenging schools to be staffed by the least qualified adults. Because senior teachers cost more than twice as much as new teachers, the real expenditure per pupil can be more than twice as much in the “nicer” schools as in those in poor neighborhoods. Few schools have good principals, partly because the supply is artificially limited to self-starters who get irrelevant “administrator” certificates, and partly because as soon as a school starts to improve, the central office yanks out its principal to assign her to another catastrophic school.

These arrangements, emphasizing the interests of the system over the performance of individual schools, come from political entrepreneurship by groups that want to protect jobs, stabilize particular programs, and maintain interest groups’ influence on schools.

Although some localities have good schools, good schools are the exception in poor rural areas. Only a school with external funding sources (foundations, businesses), or a principal with political influence, can gain the freedom to hire teachers that fit its instructional program, to pursue a consistent approach to teaching, and to keep its leader.

Some people benefit from the system: school board members who can make patronage appointments, people with permanent central office jobs, teachers unions, and parents who know how to get what they want for their children. In many cities the bedrock support comes from middle-class parents who have worked the system to get the best teachers and special school assignments for their children and who then support “public education” because of its commitment to equity.

How to Start Educating the Public’s Children

What is the alternative? We need to find a way to pursue the goals of public education without the constraints that have made their attainment impossible.

The basic answer is right before our eyes. There are three keys to educating the public’s children: First, support schools, not systems, by creating mechanisms like charters and school contracting that allow schools to focus on teaching and to keep their promises about what children will learn. Second, ensure that teachers, principals, and parents have the freedom of action necessary to create and sustain schools that work for particular groups of children. Third, withdraw public support and let families escape from schools that do not work by encouraging formation of promising new schools to replace failed ones.

Good schools are intimate places where teachers and other adults stand in for parents and accept the responsibility of making sure children learn things they will need to function as adults. Not all good schools are alike. A good school has definite ideas about what students should learn at a particular time, and how. Such a school can fit one child perfectly and be all wrong for another. That is why every school should be well-defined and free to follow a consistent approach to teaching and learning. That is also why parents should have choices.

If every school is free to follow a definite approach to instruction, schools in any locality will be diverse, not regulated into uniformity. Teachers, like parents, must also have options, and community leaders must constantly seek to strengthen their portfolios, adding promising new schools and pruning those on the bottom.

These principles work. Chartering creates a new supply of public schools by allowing new organizations – and teacher and parent groups, social service providers, colleges and universities, museums and libraries – to design and operate public schools. It also allows existing public schools to take full responsibility for instructional quality and performance improvement. Charter schools, free to improve their methods and forced to attract parents, work hard to say what teachers will do and what students will learn. Moreover, charter schools that cannot come together in these ways are often forced to change leadership or close their doors.

My own proposal for “reinventing” public education would make chartering universal. Elected officials would set goals and standards and hold schools accountable for performance, but bureaucracies would not operate any schools. Every public school would be an independent organization, operating under a performance contract. Schools would receive a set dollar amount for every child they enrolled and could use the money to hire teachers and administrators and to buy instructional materials and services.

A public school would then be any school that operated under a performance contract with a state or local education authority, accepted public funds as full tuition for its pupils, and was open to all students. Most contract public schools would evolve from public schools existing today and would be run by teacher and parent groups. Some, however, would be run by new nonprofits and even profit-making firms. Whether religious groups could operate contract schools, and under what conditions, would depend on applicable Supreme Court decisions. Public authorities could not contract with groups that practiced hate speech or advocated violent solutions to social problems.

Problems in Creating a New Supply of Public Schools

Not all contract and charter public schools will be wonderful. Some of the nations’ more than 1,300 charter schools are struggling. Furthermore, some public agencies authorized to establish charter or contract schools have done a poor job, letting in bad providers or driving out capable school leaders by micromanaging.

However, school contracting and chartering share a major advantage over the current arrangements for providing public education: They support a constant search for better options. Parents can remove children from schools where they are not learning and seek alternatives; public authorities can remove the charters or contracts of low-performing schools; and new schools can form to compete for students. Under the current system, schools can fail for generations; good schools that arise are not imitated or reproduced; and children are held in failing schools by rules that tie school attendance to home address and by the lack of alternatives.

These important problems must be solved. First, we must find a way to reconcile public oversight with school effectiveness. Legislatures, school boards, and school system bureaucracies have proved themselves incapable of exercising day-to-day control without impinging on schools’ necessary freedom of action. Second, we must find a way to make sure parents know their options and can make informed choices. Public school systems have never been candid about the performance of individual schools, and charter and contract schools have strong incentives to report only good news. Moreover, parents, conditioned to being told what school their children will attend, need help learning to make choices. Third, we must find a way to prevent harm to children who stay behind in conventional public schools as more and more parents enroll their children in the new public schools. Most public school systems now spend all their money on big, inflexible programs and are not good at adapting to changes in scale.

These problems can be solved, and the fact that they exist is no reason to sustain a public education system that is not designed to provide good schools.

Reconciling public oversight with school effectiveness requires innovation in government. Public officials who make rules for schools must not be free to change the ground rules willy-nilly. Long-term contracts between public officials and school providers will both maintain public oversight and buffer schools from micromanagement by politicians and bureaucrats. Legislation that takes school boards entirely out of the business of running schools and employing teachers can dramatically reduce opportunities for political patronage. Most importantly, clear standards for school performance, based on demonstrated relationships between what students know at a particular age and their subsequent chances for success, can provide valid bases for performance accountability.

Official oversight of school performance plus family choice is a formula for ensuring that schools are accountable both to the public and to parents. Good performance standards, based on evidence about what children really need to know and cannot do without, and secure, cheat-proof testing will give parents a language to discuss and a basis for judging schools. The federal government has a role in promoting such standards.

Most localities will need to create positions for independent public authorities whose only job is to analyze, report on, and inform parents about school performance. (The claim, made by defenders of the status quo, that poor parents don’t know or care enough to choose for their children is a calumny: Poor parents in the Cleveland and Milwaukee voucher programs have flocked to reputable schools and shunned upstart and fringe schools).

Preventing harm to children who stay behind as others depart for new schools requires an immediate change in where decisions about public school spending are made. Today, public schools in all but the tiniest school systems can’t adapt to changing enrollment because they have no money and no control over hiring and firing. Teachers and other resources are chosen for them at the central office, and when cuts are necessary they reflect school board politics, not school needs. It is no wonder that teachers and principals in troubled schools become discouraged in the face of competition from charters and contract schools.

Public school leaders must be given the flexibility to adapt to changing enrollments and to compete for students. Making teachers’ and principals’ schools – and jobs – dependent on their performance will do more than anything to give disadvantaged children more opportunities. It will also start the transition toward an all-charters or contract system, where every school controls critical resources, competes for students, and demonstrates performance.

How to Start

The first step is for Democrats to stop letting the public education establishment wrap the current arrangements in the flag of public education – and to stop opposing school reform ideas just because some Republicans like them. Democrats at all levels, including those in the cities, must work to improve education for all children, not to preserve historical accidents that do not work.

The second step is for Democrats to allow widespread experimentation with school contracting, including charter programs that have no caps on the numbers of participating schools and that truly give schools the autonomy they need to be effective. States and localities should be committed to expanding these experiments if they work, and Democrats should also make sure all publicly funded schools get control of real dollars and can hire the best teachers available. Teachers unions can live with such a system if they know there is no alternative.

Finally, Democrats must support a serious dialogue about standards: Do we know which skills children must have in order to become full citizens in our boisterous, competitive, fast-moving, and technology-driven society? Which skills sound important but are not demonstrably needed? How do we avoid loading schools down with standards that have no real warrant except that some interest group has pressed for them?

Well-grounded standards can help propel education reform. The national government can accelerate the development of such standards by investing in R&D and requiring states to use standards-based tests to assess learning gains in schools receiving federal program funds.

However, we need to recognize the limits of standards. Without the other initiatives outlined above, standards will not give us good public schools. Moreover, standards defined via political bargaining among groups devoted to particular disciplines and subject matters can only perpetuate our confusion about what public education is and what it must accomplish.