Heroic Reformer Theory Fails

Yesterday’s defeat of Adrian Fenty in DC and the likely ouster of heroic school reform superintendent, Michelle Rhee, should remind all of us of the very real limits of the heroic reformer theory of school reform.  That theory holds that we just need to place the right people in positions of power in the school system and then support their heroic efforts with supplemental funding and political support.

The main problem with maintaining centralized government control over schooling and just changing who controls that centralized system is that the forces of the status quo have enormous incentives and even stronger ability to recapture control even if they temporarily lose it.

Rhee was probably pushing for the many good reforms, but the more she pushed for them the more incentive the edublob had to win the next election, remove her from office, and undo her efforts.  And eventually they did.

Happily, DC is also decentralizing control over the school system, especially with its large and growing charter sector.  Whoever is in charge of the  DC public school district, that person will be in charge of a shrinking organization.  The right way to reform DC is to make it easy for everyone who wants to leave a failing school to do so.  That can’t be as easily reversed as changing the person who is charge of a centralized system.

12 Responses to Heroic Reformer Theory Fails

  1. […] D.C. Mayor Fenty’s loss shows the flaws of the “heroic reformer” theory of change. (Jay Greene) […]

  2. allen says:

    So Jay, what’s a policy that handles the dissolution of a school district look like? What happens to the taxing authority and, most especially, those tasty tax revenues?

  3. The taxes don’t go away. They just get allocated to students on a per pupil basis to direct to charter schools. Charters are just really small school districts. The state will allocate money to them on a per pupil basis just as it currently does to traditional districts, which will become smaller and smaller over time.

  4. allen says:

    I know what a charter school is, Jay and I know pretty much how they’re funded. The question is, what happens when a school district, like say the Detroit Public Schools district sees a greater and greater percentage of its student population going to charters?

    Over 30% of prospective DPS kids go to charters now. *When* the charter cap is loosened that number will go higher since the DPS is as execrable as it’s always been and doesn’t look to change any time soon. At what point is the towel thrown in? At what level of utilization does it become clear that the school district ought to have it’s doors shut?

    Charters are going to continue to open and they’ll prosper at the cost of whatever public education organizations exist in the area. The primary candidate for the role of providing students to charters are the extant school districts.

    The question that’s staring us in the face, and that ought to be addressed by folks with the right background, is what to do when it becomes clear that a school district is no longer worth keeping open? How long should the DPS be kept open? When 50% of the kids go to charters? 70%?

    This is where we’re heading so some thought ought to be given to the proper handling of the questions that will arise.

  5. Patrick says:

    Perhaps when the public realizes we really don’t need a centralized bureaucracy to control education when we the people (or the parents) dictates the spending and what schools are funded.

  6. Parry says:

    Here’s an honest question (and by honest I mean that I don’t think I know the answer, and I don’t have an agenda in asking the question):

    How might the consistency/distribution of educational quality be affected if school choice expands to be more than a fringe phenomenon?

    From what I can tell, the charter and voucher (i.e., choice) movement is currently primarily targeted at lower SES student populations. If the choice movement expands, and there is a movement toward greater decentralization across districts that serve a broader range of students (i.e., higher SES, middle SES, and lower SES), to what extent might that result in a less even distribution of educational quality?

    I’ll give a personal example. I live in a pretty nice neighborhood, and the local public elementary school that my daughter attends is a pretty nice school that appears to be doing a good job. But let’s say that a private school opens nearby with a $10K/year cost, and I could get a $7K voucher to send my daughter to that private school. I am lucky enough to be able to afford the $3000 difference, but some of the other families in my daughter’s school probably couldn’t. So now I have the option of my daughter getting a $10,000 per year education and I’m only paying $3K out of pocket, while less wealthy parents in my daughter’s current school do not have that option.

    Is my scenario even realistic? If not, what is the more likely direction if choice expands and public education becomes less decentralized?

  7. Patrick says:

    Your scenario is realistic and it seems many people believe this is good enough reason to oppose vouchers. However, according to the U.S. Department of Education only 21 percent of students in private schools in 2004 attended schools that charged tuitions exceeding $10,000 a year.


    1) 7k voucher is more than no voucher that means poor families are much closer to affording that tuition thus it is a more realistic option than without the voucher.
    2) Students “left behind” will see a better education as the public school improves to keep students from defecting. Something like 17 out of 18 studies show this to be true. Or is it now 18 out of 19? I forget.
    3) Just because some parents might use it to decrease out of pocket expenses at elite private schools is not sufficient to keep all students from having the opportunity to use the funds to buy the education of their own choice. AKA, punishing everyone just because someone else is wealthy isn’t fair to anyone
    4) Other options will arrive when parents control the money. As I stated, few of private schools charge elite level tuition.

  8. Patrick says:

    Jay may have a better answer though…

  9. I like Patrick’s answer. I would only add that the current system of public school districts exacerbates inequity by assigning students to schools based on where they live. That is, all students don’t have access to the same schools regardless of income. Wealthier students can afford the housing in areas with more desirable schools and white students face fewer racial barriers in their housing choices.

    And the differences in housing prices are far bigger than the likely small difference in the affordability of private schools after everyone is provided with a voucher (assuming we allow parents to supplement with their own funds). Also, if we are talking about charter school choice then there would be no tuition and all students would have equal financial access.

    School choice reduces these inequities by detaching schooling from housing. You should think of public schools as private schools where the tuition is built into housing prices. There’s nothing equitable about that.

  10. Parry says:

    Thanks for your responses. I hope that my question and example did not come across as trying to justify an across-the-board opposition to vouchers. In general, I think I am pretty convinced that vouchers for low-income students represent an effective strategy worth expanding. My biggest questions come around expanding vouchers to a larger segment of the population.

    Jay, you make the point that “School choice reduces these inequities [the inequities resulting from assigning students to school based on where they live, which creates barriers because of the variability in housing costs] by detaching schooling from housing.” I guess I don’t see how school choice will necessarily reduce those inequities.

    Let’s say that a state puts in place a large-scale voucher program that is open to all parents. This would create a huge new market for educational entrepreneurs. Wouldn’t some of these entrepreneurs (maybe even a lot of them) target higher-income families? That would likely mean opening schools near the potential clientele; in other words, a possible proliferation of private schools in wealthier neighborhoods. So then you could have schools crop up similar to the one I described in my earlier example: just expensive enough to bring in some extra income, but not so expensive to completely price out the nearby population. Just as the fancier grocery stores tend to be found in the wealthier parts of town, wouldn’t the fancier private schools crop up in the wealthier parts of town? And wouldn’t this then perpetuate the connection between schooling and housing?

    I guess here’s my big question. In free markets, you have disparate levels of service catering to disparate income levels. If education moves toward a free market system via vouchers, wouldn’t it make sense that these disparate levels of service would also play out in the new education system? This might result in higher levels of education for everyone, which would be a good thing, but couldn’t it also result in increased stratification of educational quality? Saying “We can’t make it great for everyone so we shouldn’t make it better for anyone” isn’t a good argument, but I do worry about the possible ramifications of a universal voucher system, as opposed to simply expanded voucher opportunities for low-income families.


  11. Greg Forster says:

    If I had to choose, I’d rather have dramatic improvement in everyone’s education, including for the poor, at the cost of greater inequality because the improvements are not evenly distributed, rather than no improvement for anyone and the maintenance of existing inequalities in perpetuity.

    Vouchers will improve education for the poor, and universal vouchers will improve it much more than limited vouchers. The limited vouchers we have now provide a moderate amount of help to a small population, but they will not drive innovation. They will not create radically better ways of delivering educaiton. The only people who could create a radically better model is that army of education entrepreneurs you’re describing. And they won’t do it until we get universal vouchers. But once they do it, everyone – including the poor – will benefit dramatically.

    As Milton once said, show me a program that’s limited to the poor and I’ll show you a poor program.

    And in the long term I’m convinced that nothing else will work but universal vouchers. Short-term improvements can’t be sustained for the long term in an environment where the unions have all the power. You need to break the unions, and only universal vouchers will do that.

    To quote the great man again, a society that puts equality before freedom will get neither; a society that puts freedom before equality will get a high degree of both.

  12. […] 13th, 2010 at 9:45am in Education with 0 comments Print This Post Today, Michelle Rhee is expected to announce her resignation as D.C. Schools Chancellor. While speculation had been growing about her fate as the D.C. public […]

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