The Establishment Mindset

(Guest post by Jonathan Butcher)

In education policy, as with any policy area, when discussion turns to reform, there are some basic questions: what are the problems that need fixing?  Who are the interested parties—what is at stake?  Should the change come from the bottom up or from the top down?  Is it raining?  Did I leave my car’s top down?  Do I own a convertible?

Actually, those last few questions only come up if the discussion is taking place inside a government building in Washington because, as everyone knows, there is no place to park in Washington.  So if you left your top down and it starts to rain there is no way you will make it back to your car in time to put it up.  You probably had to park in a metro lot in some swanky Northern Virginia suburb where gas cost $5 before the recent spike in oil prices and there are more Lexus LX’s per capita than any place in the world.  

Change to large systems such as public education can be frightening—but it is often simply because the ideas are misunderstood.  Take a story in the Washington Post last week about charter schools in Louisiana, for example.  New Orleans is now the first city of its size where more than half of the students attend charter schools.  Certainly this is a drastic change: 

“For these new schools with taxpayer funding and independent management, old rules and habits are out. No more standard hours, seniority, union contracts, shared curriculum or common textbooks. In are a crowd of newcomers — critics call them opportunists — seeking to lift standards and achievement. They compete for space, steal each other’s top teachers and wonder how it is all going to work.”  

Hold the phone!  Replacing a system the Post said had a “dismal record and faint prospects of getting better” with new management and scrapping portions of the old system that helped drive it to such a dismal state?  And using public dollars to create this change?  This sort of reform hasn’t happened since…well maybe it was…let me get back to you.

Critics of this change offer a revealing look at the establishment mindset.  One critic charges that “Louisiana school authorities have ‘opened a flea market of entrepreneurial opportunism that is dismantling the institution of public education in New Orleans.’”  Note that this quote uses the word “entrepreneurial” and the idea of taking apart New Orleans’ public education system as though they are bad things.  Well yes, please, bring back union contracts, students sure missed them.  

These charter school operators are “opportunists” in the sense that they are taking advantage of an opportunity to open schools for children whose lives were throttled by Katrina.  One charter school was open for business six weeks after the storm hit, while a public school bureaucracy with more levels than Halo 3 was still looking for its PlayStation.  These charter schools are actually competing for talented teachers in an effort to make the best educational opportunities possible available to students―compare that to an establishment mindset that wistfully refers to the days of payscales.

There are sure to be some challenges for these new charter schools, and as with any change in public policy, the results may be less than perfect.  But students in New Orleans deserve something better than an otherwise “dismal” record.

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