Even among the nation’s woeful traditional big-city school districts, Detroit Public Schools is a particular abomination. Between falling into state receivership for the second time in the past 12 years, facing $327 million in budget deficits for the next four years, wrangling with scandals such as the travails of literacy-bereft now-former school board president Otis Mathis (who resigned last year after the district’s superintendent complained that he had engaged in lewd acts during meetings), and constant news about its failure to educate its students, the Motor City district has secured its place as the Superfund site of education.
So it wasn’t a surprise when Detroit’s state-appointed czar, Robert Bobb, announced on March 12 that the district would slash its deficit — and eliminate as much as $99 million in costs from operating its bureaucracy — by getting rid of 29 percent of the 142 dropout factories and failure mills. But instead of just shutting down the 41 schools (as the district originally planned to do) it would convert them into charter schools, handing off instruction, curriculum, and operations to nonprofits, parents groups, and others interested in running schools.
While Detroit’s move is certainly driven by cost-cutting, the district is conceding to the reality that the school district model — with its expensive central bureaucracy, woeful inefficiency, and lengthy record of academic failure — no longer works either for children or taxpayers. With states and districts facing $260 billion in budget shortfalls over the next two years (and $1.4 trillion in pension deficits and unfunded teacher retirement liabilities in the long haul), charter-like ways of operating schools have become more appealing than ever.
Just outside of Atlanta, the suburban Fulton County school district is taking advantage of a Georgia state law and beginning to convert itself into a charter system. Under the contractual status, the district would be free from traditional degree- and seniority-based pay scales and be allowed to use such innovations as teacher performance pay plans; in turn, school operations move from the central bureaucracies to school-based councils run by adults, teachers and principals. Six other school systems in the Peach State have already converted into charter school systems, and others will likely do follow suit.
In tiny Elkton, Oregon, a town better known as a hotspot for bass-fishing than for school innovation, the one-school district there has taken advantage of a state loophole and fully converted itself into a charter. This has allowed the district to attract students from nearby traditional school systems, creating a form of competition that hadn’t previously existed. In the three years since it converted to a charter, Elkton’s enrollment increased by 54 percent. Eleven other rural districts in the Beaver State have abandoned the traditional district model in the past eight years; three more have already applied to do so this year.
Then there is New Orleans, which has become the nation’s model for school reform. Right after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Louisiana state officials moved to take over 107 of the Crescent City’s failing public schools from the faltering traditional school district and began aggressively launching new charter schools. Since then, the traditional district model has been all but abandoned, with both the state-controlled Recovery School District and the old Orleans Parish system operating just 26 of the city’s 84 schools; charters account for 70 percent of all New Orleans school enrollment. And even the schools under state control have become de facto charters and, under a plan approved by the state in December, will remain so even after they return to Orleans Parish oversight.
Certainly, traditional school districts still educate the overwhelming majority of the nation’s students — and if the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and other defenders of traditional public education have their say, it will remain that way. As in the private sector, the advantages of size — including greater purchasing power — means that there will always be some large school operators of some sort; even big names within the charter school movement, such as KIPP (which runs 99 schools throughout the nation), Aspire (30 schools in California), and Green Dot Public Schools (17 in California and New York), have enrollments as sizable as some mid-sized traditional districts.
But with just 69 percent of the nation’s students ever graduating from high school, big-city districts such as Cleveland and Los Angeles failing to reach even those low graduation rates, and one out of every three fourth-graders reading at levels of functional illiteracy, any thought that big districts equals better student achievement is clearly mistaken. Size (and corresponding big-spending) doesn’t turn out to equal efficiency or achievement either. Just 17 percent of the top-spending districts in Florida were among the top third of districts in student achievement, according to a report released in January by the Center for American Progress.
State laws that govern how school districts manage spending and labor — including collective bargaining rules that were at the heart of the battles last month between unions and governors such as Wisconsin’s Scott Walker — are part of the problem. Detroit, for example, must negotiate with 10 different unions, including locals of the AFT, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. Decades of dealmaking between districts, states and the NEA and AFT have also saddled school systems with teacher pay plans — including defined-benefit pensions and near-free healthcare — that have become too expensive to bear; in Jersey City, N.J., for example, the district there spent 184 percent more on teacher benefits in 2007-2008 than it did a decade earlier. These burdens, along with federal regulations such as “supplement-not-supplant” (which requires districts to essentially use Title 1 dollars to fund field trips to prove that they aren’t shortchanging students instead of programs that might actually improve their performance), add to taxpayer burdens without improving graduation rates.
The other problem lies with the unwillingness of districts to move to into the 21st century. The refusal to ditch antiquated academic, financial, and management information systems — even as the federal government has begun embracing the use of MySQL databases and Drupal content management systems — and the failure to use outsourcing as a way to wring out efficiencies are two examples. Just 69 percent of school buses are kept in operation throughout the school year, to a 2010 study by Michael Casserly of the Council of the Great City Schools. The contracts districts strike with NEA and AFT locals, along with the bloat in central bureaucracies, also restrict the ability of school principals to actually run schools. School budgets often run in the millions — usually in the form of teacher salaries — yet the average principal only controls $60,000 of it, according to education policy analyst (and former Clinton administration honcho) Andrew Rotherham.
But technological advancements offer opportunities to run schools differently. Online learning, for example, offers schools a chance to provide more students with good-to-great teachers — especially in areas in which districts struggle to staff such as math and science; it’s sensible especially given that even poor kids have Internet access. As seen in Detroit, more districts (and states) recognize that they need to adapt charter-like approaches to running schools. New York City took an important (albeit costly) step four years ago when it handed principals the authority to remove laggard teachers from their classrooms.
But cutting down bureaucracies and handing over decisions to schools can only be the start. The need to reform how the nation recruits and train teachers — which, along with woeful reading and math curricula, is the main reason for the low quality of the nation’s schools — remains paramount. While charter schools have had greater success in improving student achievement than traditional districts, the fact that they still draw from the same university schools of education as traditional district counterparts still means there are many runts in the proverbial litter.
While President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top effort has helped force states to ditch laws that restrict the ability of districts to subject teachers to private sector-style performance management, the threat of future restrictions (and the ability of the NEA and AFT to use their lobbying and campaign clout to stop reforms) remains in place. And more districts will be forced to embrace smaller bureaucracies (or out of business), once families are given wider arrays of options through school choice and parent trigger laws that can take schools out of district control. The threat of parent power (along with pressure from school reformers such as Green Dot founder Steve Barr) is why the gargantuan Los Angeles Unified School District is spinning off 186 of its schools into private hands and will authorize 200 charter schools by the 2011-2012 school year.
Given the woes of America’s schools and their high costs, returning to the one-room schoolhouse would be better than bloated school bureaucracies.