Last of three parts
The prospects for national school reform brightened with the election of Barack Obama as educator-in-chief. As a candidate, he signaled that he would try to find a "third way" though the battle lines in the education wars. A stunning opportunity arose when his administration - under the rallying cry, "Never let a crisis go to waste" - struck a balance in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act between short-term economic recovery and longer-term investment in the nation's energy, health and education systems.
The $100 billion stimulus allocation to public education doubles prior annual federal aid, including about a 50 percent increase in annual grants for low-income students and students with disabilities. On top of that is the $5 billion Race to the Top Fund. Arne Duncan, the secretary of education, has almost complete discretion over how it is awarded, and it's the big bait to lure states and local school systems to reform their ways.
The watchword for Race to the Top runners is "innovation," and the winning applications are expected to emphasize tougher teacher evaluations, more rigorous standards and tests, and charter schools.
I have a mixed view of the stimulus-package largesse. On the plus side, it moves the nation a step closer toward national standards, tests and links between more federal money and research-based reform. Further, while these funds will only be available for two to three years, Congress will be politically hard-pressed to sunset completely the additional grants targeted to low-income and disabled students. And the Race to the Top aspirations are likely to work their way into a reauthorized (and renamed) No Child Left Behind Act.
On the negative side, as I mentioned in Part 1 of this series, the most fatal flaw in school reform is mismanagement of the design and delivery of classroom teaching and learning. Put another way, policy innovation is less important than instructional implementation (and that applies to charter schools as well as regular public schools). No matter how imposing the federal role, local system school systems must win the education wars in the management trenches. Are they up to the task - and who should be in charge?
Another building block of a "New Education Federalism," the concept I introduced in Part 2, is an overhaul of local school governance, beginning with abolition of local school boards. It's true that local boards, whether elected or appointed, are good in democratic theory. But in practice, no matter how dedicated and able (as in Baltimore), volunteer board members lack the time and knowledge to make smart policy decisions, and elected boards in particular tend to politicize policymaking. Worst of all, they prevent clear executive accountability: a single person who can be held responsible for local performance.
Mayors are best suited to assume this authority and be held accountable. Historically, city halls have been happy to avoid the headaches that come with running school systems. But modern mayors recognize that schools are indispensable to urban renaissance and are attuned to wielding executive authority. With their political necks on the line, mayors will be more prone to challenge education establishments, install nontraditional superintendents and insist that management systems be retooled.
Mayors Michael Bloomberg in New York and Adrian Fenty in D.C. have gotten legislators to shelve their school boards and are staking their mayoral legacies on school reform. They are intrepid and making headway, and a few other mayors are trying to follow suit. Thus, under a New Education Federalism, the White House and Congress should be at the top and mayors at the base of the public school chain of command.
I am not accidentally overlooking state governments and departments of education. Some, like Maryland, have made notable efforts. But as NCLB proves, as a whole, they can't be counted on. They have severe political and management shortcomings of their own, and will always be diverted from a focus on poor urban students because they have so many diverse districts, including rural and suburban ones, to tend to.
In the final analysis, only audacious reform has a chance to succeed. And it is unconscionable not to go for it. Our national self-respect and self-interest demand that we not waste any more time and young lives.
About the author
Kalman R. Hettleman is a former member of the Baltimore school board and former state human resources secretary. His book "It's the Classroom, Stupid: A Plan to Save America's Schoolchildren," is due out next week. His e-mail is email@example.com.