Education and the architecture of choice
I want to talk about school choice again, because it’s one of those topics that I have a really hard time coming to terms with, and it struck me over the weekend that this is at least partly because the schools and charter schools in my home town are so much different than the schools and charter schools in say Newark or Cleveland. Here, the public schools are actually pretty good and the charter schools are just another alternative – not really a “way out” from a terrible public education monopoly, but rather give people a different approach to education. Maybe a charter focuses on different teaching styles, or performing and fine arts, or more homework. Choice is really just choice and nothing more. It’s not life and death.
There are no powerful teachers’ unions calling the shots, either. There are still things like seniority, tenure, and the lack of merit pay, but compared to New Jersey schools or D.C. or any number of other places, the institutional problems are much, much less entrenched. Nor do I see any need for vouchers here. The only sizeable private school in the area is the local Catholic school. In other words, my experience here has had a major influence on how I feel about school choice, which is generally that I’m a fan of charter schools and a critic of vouchers.
I can see how other peoples’ educational experience might lead them to quite different conclusions. You hear stories of people in the charter lotteries in these places with such awful public education systems and you really see how school choice is a vital, under-supplied commodity. Or you hear stories about the greed and corruption of charter school operators, and the six figure incomes they’re pulling down. (Then again, you hear similar tales of school administrators with similarly bloated salaries, or federal bureaucrats raking in $200,000 or more in the Department of Education. Lots of places to cut back!)
Anecdotal evidence aside, I think there is a strong case to be made for school choice especially where unions are strongest and where public school status quo is most entrenched. As Rick Hess wrote a while back discussing the Milwaukie voucher program, school-choice should not be viewed entirely as a results-oriented process, but rather
choice-based reform should be embraced as an opportunity for educators to create more focused and effective schools and for reformers to solve problems in smarter ways. Whether any of that pays off is much more a question of quality control, support, talent, investment, infrastructure, and the rest than it is of whether or not a choice program is in place.
Naturally, the benefits of such structural changes will be more greatly felt in areas where choice has been resisted the most and where the proponents of the status quo have the most to lose. In places where teachers’ unions are not as strong, this sort of architecture is largely already in place or has been erected gradually over the past decade or so (or longer in some cases).
Interestingly, the debate surrounding school choice seems to come down to two extremes. On the one hand, you have advocates of choice – charters, vouchers, and so forth – arguing that there is a state cartel of public education. In some places this description might sound downright strange and oddly ideological. In others, this description might ring very true indeed.
On the other hand, you have critics of school choice arguing that charter schools are little more than thinly disguised corporate takeovers of the public education system, education rent-seekers undermining the fabric of our social contract on education. Again, in some places this might sound about right, in others you might raise an eyebrow or two at this description.
That’s why this debate is so contentious and so difficult to come to common ground on. We may need to move toward school choice in many places around the country, but that doesn’t mean we need to totally re-write our social contract on education. We can create better alternatives without upending the public education system as a whole. Nobody ever said teachers’ unions needed to hold such sway in public education in the first place. Public education doesn’t rely on the unions nearly so much as the unions rely on public education. Similarly, there’s no reason why charters or vouchers or any other choice-based reform needs to necessarily lead to the corporatization of public schools. There are risks in reform, but there are risks, too, in the status quo.
That’s also why, for all my own uncertainty on how to best reform our education system, I’ve remained consistent in saying that education is a local affair with national implications. That means we need to create the right architecture for experimentation – to create an educational environment that is ready to evolve and adapt, rather than either maintain the status quo in places where that status quo means no reform at all (including no merit pay, no tenure reform, no choice) or move toward a national curriculum, national standards, or any other magic bullet.
Obviously this means we’ll need to be creative when we talk about accountability or when we talk about creating incentives for good teachers. There are no panaceas in this debate – which means creating a suitable environment for reform and experimentation is all the more important.