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Home arrow Education arrow American public education and the responsibility of its citizens : supporting democracy in the age of accountability


Schooling, falling under the 10th Amendment of the US Constitution, has been primarily a state matter, whereby states create funding mechanisms and oversee school districts to ensure adequate and equitable education for all residents—elements of common schooling that most states have included in their constitutions. On a smaller scale, American public schools have a long tradition of local control, extending back to the Colonial period, when public school boards were formed to oversee schools in New England communities with more than fifty households. It has been believed that school boards, elected by and accountable to the public served by a school, can best reflect the will of that community when hiring staff, crafting curricula, and making educational policy. On an even smaller scale, parents have sought clear and direct routes to influence decisions made in the schools their children attend. The organization and practices of schools have long reflected such state, local, and parental influence.

The status of local control began to change gradually throughout the mid- 1900s as the number of school districts were consolidated, and in the following decades as states both provided larger funding and demanded greater control of the purse strings and oversight of educational practices. As the century progressed, this situation began to change more rapidly, shifting influence and control from the local to the federal. One major marker of this shift was the elevation of the 1950s US Office of Education to a cabinet-level department in 1979. Another was the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which identified the criteria schools must meet to receive federal funds in 1965. Around the same time, court rulings and federal policies began to institute new requirements in schools regarding discrimination, for, when left to their own devices of local control, some schools practiced exclusion and discrimination that might have continued were it not for federal intervention. These policies included an end to racial segregation in 1954, the Civil Rights Act to outlaw several forms of discrimination in 1964, Title IX to prevent sexual discrimination in 1972, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to ensure free and high-quality education for students with disabilities in 1975. With each, schools were opened to greater federal scrutiny and oversight to ensure that they were in compliance with the new laws.

In 1983, the National Commission on Excellence in Education released “A Nation at Risk" a document raising widespread concern about the sub- par performance of American schools, especially relative to schools abroad, which was believed to call American dominance into question. This report directed new national attention to our schools and was reflected in the educational missions and policies of subsequent presidents, including Clinton’s Goals 2000, Bush’s NCLB in 2002, and Obama’s RTTT in 2009. Each has increased federal influence over schools and set new standards for curricula, performance, and accountability, in some cases replacing outdated curricula and low standards set by local control. In some regards, these national efforts have eclipsed the local governments and the expressions of democratic participation that happen there.

Alongside increased federal influence has been a new development in school governance in some of our nation’s largest cities: mayoral control. Notably those cities contain some of our highest percentages of people of color, revealing a potential dynamic of race and power that warrants attention. Spurred in part by new national concerns for improving underperforming schools, mayoral control resulted as an effort to reform urban schools, which has been supported by education officials as high ranking as President Obama’s recent secretary of education, Arne Duncan. Boston was the first major city to implement mayoral control in 1991, followed by Chicago in 1995, Baltimore in 1997, Cleveland in 1998, Philadelphia in 2001, New York in 2002, and Washington DC in 2007.

An executive business model, mayoral control typically entails removing the publicly elected school board and their selected superintendent and replacing it with a board and superintendent appointed by the mayor. In some cases, such as in Washington DC, a hybrid board is used, where some publicly elected board members remain alongside others appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the city council. The appointed board structure is thought to provide a more sustained and ideologically aligned leadership, one that is better equipped to act promptly, unanimously, and continuously on behalf of struggling urban schools. It strives to prevent quick turnover among boards and superintendents so that major reform efforts can be established and sustained. Moreover, it shields board members from backlash if necessary reforms are unpopular among the citizenry. And ideological alignment is believed to make the boards less likely to be bogged down by minor or changing local interests. Mayoral control also holds one chief figure responsible for school performance.30

Recovery School Districts are another new form of school governance. They began in New Orleans in 2003 (eventually expanding statewide in 2005 and including eighty schools in 2015) and spread to Michigan and Tennessee in 2012, and have been proposed in four other states since. Writing on the status of this quickly growing form of public schools in 2015, Nelson Smith, former head of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and now senior adviser to the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, said, “The number of states undertaking this hugely promising but highly challenging (and endlessly varied) reform might double by mid-summer"31 Such potential dramatic growth certainly warrants attention.

Recovery School Districts enable the state to take over some of the lowest- performing schools, but rather than turning them over to the state board of education, typically it is the governor and state superintendent who take them over. In some cases, like in Louisiana, a partly elected and partly appointed board is also put in place to oversee the district. The takeover is intended to be temporary, with control reinstated to local school boards once school achievement has sufficiently improved. Working as a district, and sometimes as a statewide district, Recovery School Districts are tasked with either directly running the schools or overseeing charter management organizations that do so. The Recovery School District in Louisiana has now reached 100% charter makeup, while other recovery districts hold a mixed portfolio of direct-led and charter-l ed schools. Under both avenues, Recovery School Districts receive wider authority and flexibility than traditional public schools, which means they can choose to be nonunionized, craft new discipline policies, and take other actions that traditionals schools typically cannot. Recovery districts tend to employ school choice programs among the schools they oversee, including a fairly advanced one in New Orleans that earned first place in the Brookings Institution’s 2014 Choice and Competition Index.32

The establishment of Recovery School Districts was propelled by RTTT School Improvement Grants that offered large financial incentives to try new and drastic measures to reform schools by instituting changes in their governance. As proponent Nelson Smith says, “Uncle Sam has had a profound catalytic effect"33 Despite federal enticements, states have responded in differing ways to this proposed type of district. In Virginia, a Recovery School District was turned down by the courts due to a local control clause in their state constitution. Indeed, to even get off the ground in Louisiana, they first had to hold a popular vote and amend their constitution to allow for such schools. And in Michigan, voters decided to limit their recovery district, the Michigan Education Achievement Authority status, to only Detroit, rather than extend it to the entire state. Once established in Tennessee, the governor stepped in to support the struggling enrollment of the recovery district by opening it to students in surrounding areas, and he financially supported a 3% operating fee for the district, thereby supplementing RTTT incentives.

Smith adds, “For all their complexity and variation, turnaround districts have two things in common. One, they give impatient state policymakers a potentially powerful new tool for dealing with perennial school dysfunction. And two, they put existing districts on notice that the revered notion of ‘local control’ must give way if it fails to deliver results for students stuck in lousy schools"34 While these factors would seem to suggest great potential for improving test scores and other markers of achievement—and indeed U.S. News & World Report35 proclaims that the Louisiana Recovery School District has done so—Smith warns that “it’s too soon to say with confidence that the new arrangement is producing the results we seek"36 Indeed, early evidence appears mixed. But like other forms of choice I’ve discussed so far, the growth of these districts seems to continue without strong evidence to warrant it.

Recovery School Districts operate using a Portfolio Management Model (PMM) that is used in some municipalities, including New York, Los Angeles, Hartford, Denver, and Chicago, and has been endorsed by federal leaders, educational philanthropists, and education reform advocacy groups like Students First. Under PMM, the district office runs an array of schools using various governance structures, including charter schools, magnet schools, and even privately operated education providers. This differs from the traditional role of central district offices, which historically have run multiple similar schools in a geographical region. The PMM district office allows the schools greater autonomy, but does hold them to performance-based accountability and will intervene if schools fail. Thus, “the PMM idea effectively situates the central office as a key gatekeeper, mediating between local needs and demands, on the one hand, and external pressures and resources on the other"37 The latter includes negotiating contracts and services with private providers on behalf of the schools and the individual children they serve, as even within an educational marketplace, many providers prefer to work with one large district rather than tediously working with each child or parent.38

My own home state of Ohio witnessed how quickly new forms of school governance can develop. In less than twenty-four hours in June 2015, the state legislature proposed and approved a lengthy amendment to an otherwise relatively well-supported bipartisan education bill (HB 70).39 The amendment turned the leadership of schools in academic distress—in this case, those in Youngstown City Schools—over from elected school board hands to an appointed chief executive officer appointed by an unelected committee. Seen as a necessary measure to improve struggling schools, this change was devised by the Youngstown City Schools Business Cabinet, governor, and state superintendent and came about without any local public debate or input from the State Board of Education. Much like the issues faced in establishing Recovery School Districts, some question whether this action was in compliance with the state constitution, which proclaims that the city has the right to vote for its school board, and that the board is in charge of its schools (Article VI §з).40 But proponents argue that drastic measures in school governance are needed to ensure better-quality education for Youngstown residents, a claim in tension with the more traditional approach of being responsive to the public that I outlined in my five elements of functionally public schools. The Youngstown plan was accompanied by financial incentives from the state for private schools and EMOs to start or overtake schools in the city.

Finally, corporations, foundations, and philanthropists are achieving greater influence over school policy and practice. Major companies and philanthropists such as Microsoft and Bill Gates have been compelled to aid education reform by generating ideas, funding initiatives, developing curricula, offering educational products or resources, and, in rare occasions, even planning and overseeing new schools, such as Microsoft’s School of the Future in Philadelphia. Other corporations, such as McGraw-Hill and Pearson, have become closely affiliated with school textbooks and testing, influencing school curriculum and its assessment. And foundations, such as the Eli Broad Foundation, have donated millions of dollars to education improvement efforts, including Recovery School Districts. In some cases, such as in Newark, New Jersey, philanthropist and mayors have come together to reshape the schools and their management: Marc Zuckerberg pledged $100 million to Newark’s schools in 2010, as he, Mayor Cory Booker, and Governor Chris Christie worked together to lead Newark school reform in the years since.

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