Monday, February 04, 2013

Smarick Argues Charters are the Answer to Education Reform

The biggest issue, by far, in education reform is the reformer vs. relinquisher debate, which I’ve covered extensively in past posts (1, 2, 3, 4). Count me strongly in the relinquisher camp – though we must also do our best to improve the existing system, since it will take many years – perhaps decades – in most cities to replace all of the bad schools with good ones. I’m not saying charters are THE answer – I’m agnostic whether students receive an excellent education in a regular public, public charter, or private school. Nor am I saying that all charters are wonderful – lots are terrible and should be shut down according the same criteria as any other school. But ALL of the evidence is that these big, broken, bureaucratic school systems cannot be fixed by internal reforms alone. That doesn’t necessarily mean that a portfolio approach with meaningful competition and choice will be a miracle cure, but I sure think it’s worth trying – especially given the incredible results in New Orleans post Katrina (1, 2). Recall that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

Andy Smarick (along with John White, Superintendent of LA, and Neerav Kingsland, CEO of New Schools for New Orleans) is one of the most powerful advocates for a relinquisher approach, and it’s good to see him getting traction/attention in DC:

When activists from the District and across the country gathered Tuesday at the U.S. Education Department to call for an end to school closures, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten issued a statement in solidarity: “It’s time to fix, not close, our schools,” she said.

A few miles away, Andy Smarick argued the opposite: it’s time to close, not fix, our schools.
It boils down to this: Traditional urban school systems are broken and can’t be fixed. They have to be replaced. And charter schools should be the blueprint.
“Chartering is the replacement system for the failed urban system in my view,” Smarick said Tuesday.

Smarick advocates for closing low-performing traditional and charter schools, allowing only successful institutions to continue operating. If that means that struggling school systems are forced to shrink into minor education players in their respective cities — well, so be it.
Who would decide which schools stay open and which close? A government authority (that doesn’t exist in the District) charged with creating a portfolio of schools that meets the needs of the city, and that has the power to oversee charter and traditional schools — as well as private schools that take vouchers.

As Smarick sees it, well-meaning education reformers have been trying to radically overhaul schools in America’s big cities for half a century. They’ve spent hundreds of billions of dollars.
And they don’t have much to show for it, Smarick said. Academic achievement is still “tragically” low, whether you look at national test scores or graduation rates, he said.
“It’s a civil-rights, social justice disaster — and someone needs to talk about it,” he said.

I was pleased to read DC Chancellor Kaya Henderson’s response:

Henderson is not averse to chartering; in fact, she’d like to have the authority to charter her own schools, and she has repeatedly said that she recognizes that in some cases and in some neighborhoods, charters are succeeding where DCPS has failed.

Instead of closing Malcolm X Elementary, for example, she is in talks to allow a charter school to take it over, creating what she describes as “some kind of weird hybrid” between charter and DCPS.

If a charter “can do it better than I can do it in that neighborhood, I’m good,” Henderson said Tuesday. “I recognize that I’m both an education provider and I’m also a portfolio manager.”

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