The Year That Was

It’s getting to be that time when people make lists of good and bad things that happened during the preceding year.  Here’s mine from an interview with Michael F. Shaughnessy of

What were the 5 most important developments during 2008 that contributed to reform of K-12 education?

 1)     Barack Obama strongly endorsed the idea that expanding choice and competition is an important part of improving public schools.  He limited his support to expanding choice and competition through the introduction of more charter schools, but the theory is not fundamentally different than doing the same with vouchers.  Whether Obama follows through on this campaign position or not, it is now clear that it is considered politically desirable among both Democrats and Republicans to support choice and competition.  Holdouts from this view, including the teacher unions on the left and curriculum-focused reformers on the right, are being increasingly marginalized.

2)     Sarah Palin, in her only major policy speech, pushed the idea of special education vouchers.  Like Obama embracing choice and competition, Palin embracing special ed vouchers is a symbol of the political attractiveness of the policy.  Special ed voucher programs already exist in Florida, Georgia, Ohio, Utah, and Arizona (pending the resolution of a court case).  I’d expect the idea to spread to several more states in the next four years regardless of Sarah Palin’s political prospects.

3)     Reform ideas, including choice, merit pay, curbing teacher tenure, and promoting alternative certification, are gaining mainstream acceptance in the Democratic Party largely thanks to the efforts of Democrats for Education Reform.  An important indication of this political shift was an event at the Democratic National Convention organized by the Democrats for Education Reform at which an audience of about 500 cheered speakers denouncing the teacher unions and embracing reform ideas. The Democratic supporters of reform largely (but not exclusively) consist of urban minority leaders, including Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein, Adrian Fenty, Cory Booker, Kevin Chavous, Al Sharpton, and Marion Barry.  Go ahead and make all the Sharpton and Barry jokes you like, but this (mostly) minority defection of urban Democrats from union orthodoxy is like a political earthquake that will have important implications for future reform politics.  And it’s true that some conservatives have begun backtracking on reform ideas, including Sol Stern, Diane Ravitch, and depending on the day of the week, Checker Finn and Mike Petrilli.  But if the reform movement has traded some conservatives for the new generation of minority Democratic leadership, I think we’ve come out ahead.

4)     We saw a string of new or expanded school choice programs in 2008.  Georgia adopted a universal tax-credit supported voucher program.  Louisiana adopted a voucher program for New Orleans as well as a personal tax deduction for private school tuition.  Florida expanded and decreased burdensome regulation on its tax-credit supported voucher program.  And Utah increased and secured a source of funding for its special ed voucher program.  For a movement declared dead more times than Generalissimo Francisco Franco, school choice continues to grow.

5)     I’ll take the privilege of the final development to brag about the launch of the new doctoral program in education policy in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas.  It may not have been among the 5 most important developments in the whole country, but it was a big development in my little world.  With the first cohort of students starting in the Fall of 2009 (supported by a pool of generous fellowships) and a collection of outstanding faculty, we have the potential to significantly increase the number of reform-oriented researchers in academia, think-tanks, and foundations.

What were the 5 most important developments during 2008 that hindered reform of K-12 education?

1)     The reform movement lost two great champions this year with the passing of John Brandl and J. Patrick Rooney.  Brandl, who had been the Democratic leader of Minnesota’s state senate and Dean of the University of Minnesota’s Hubert Humphrey School of Public Policy, contributed significantly to the argument that choice was not only efficient, but also enhanced opportunities for the disadvantaged.  He helped create the state’s pioneering charter school law and other choice programs.  Brandl also served as mentor to many of today’s leading choice researchers.  Rooney, who had always been active in the civil rights movement, personally sponsored scholarships for disadvantaged students to attend private schools.  His privately financed program became a model for publicly funded voucher and tax-credit supported scholarship programs.

2)     In 2008 we saw a number of “implementation” problems undermine otherwise promising reform initiatives.  For example, Georgia adoption a social promotion policy that required students to pass a test or follow a formal exemption policy to be promoted in certain grades.  My research with Marcus Winters on a similar policy in Florida suggested that it would improve student achievement.   But in several districts around Georgia more than 90% of students were promoted without passing the test and without following the formal exemption procedure.  They simply disregarded the law on a large scale with no consequences for any district or school employee.  Another promising idea undermined by implementation was Reading First. There is a lot of rigorous science to support a phonics-based reading approach, but getting public schools to do it well is a completely different matter.  Implementation also appears to have done-in a promising teacher mentoring program.  I could go on, but the point is that there is no shortage of clever reform practices out there.  The problem is that without addressing the lack of proper incentives in the public education system to improve, we regularly see these clever practices fall flat. We need incentive-based reforms along with reform of educational practices.

3)     Earlier this year an Arizona court struck down voucher programs for students with disabilities and students in foster care on the grounds that the state constitution forbids aid to private schools.  This month defenders of the program argued on appeal to the state Supreme Court that the program aids students, not schools.  And the state already sends disabled students to private schools when it is determined that the public schools are unable to provide adequate services.  That practice may also be in jeopardy, even though it is actually required by federal law (IDEA).  Who knows how this will all be resolved, since courts can adopt any interpretation they like, reasonable or unreasonable.  But court action has prevented these beneficial programs from operating and threatens to kill them.

4)     A Florida court struck down the ability of a state commission to approve charter schools.  If upheld by the (notorious) Florida Supreme Court, only school districts could approve charters and existing charters approved by the state commission may have to be closed.  Giving districts the exclusive power to grant charters essentially allows the districts to decide with whom they will have to compete.  It’s like giving McDonalds the exclusive power to approve the opening of all new restaurants.  The state Supreme Court used the same narrow interpretation of clauses in the state constitution to strike down the Opportunity Scholarship voucher program, so the prospects for a vibrant and competitive charter sector in Florida are not good.

5)     And finally the most disappointing development of 2008 is that we spent another half trillion dollars on public education without significantly altering the dysfunctional system that fails to teach a quarter of 8th grade students to read at a basic level or get them to graduate from high school.  Results for minority students are significantly worse.  The economic bailout may be a $700 billion enterprise, but the public school system spends almost that much each and every year.  Every year that we spend that money without fundamentally altering how we operate public education is another fortune wasted and another year lost for millions of students.

(Note: corrected spelling of Marion Barry’s name)

3 Responses to The Year That Was

  1. […] The Year That Was 2)     Sarah Palin, in her only major policy speech, pushed the idea of special education vouchers.  Like Obama embracing choice and… […]

  2. […] Update:  Jay Greene offers his list of Big Ideas here. […]

  3. […] First, and not unexpectedly, the pro-charter Center for Education Reform blasted the decision. Now the Manhattan Institute's Jay Greene counts the ruling among his five most important developments that hindered education reform during 2008. […]

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