The System Is Beyond Reform

(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

“I get adequate food, and adequate clothing, and medical care when I require it,” said U.S. Naval Commander Jeremiah Denton to the camera. But his eyes told a different story.

Denton was a prisoner of war. He had been captured in 1965 after being shot down near Thanh Hoa. After severely torturing Denton, his captors forced him to make a propaganda video intended, in part, to show how humane his Communist “hosts” were. Though his mouth repeated (some of) what his captors demanded, his eyes blinked a different message, unmistakable to those who knew Morse Code: T-O-R-T-U-R-E.

I couldn’t help but think of Denton when reading Checker Finn’s recent valedictory essay summing up the lessons he had learned during his self-described “tour of duty” on the Maryland State Board of Education. His keyboard sounded notes of hope and encouragement about reforming the district school system (“[D]on’t give up. It’s not totally hopeless. Moments of opportunity arise. Stars have been known to align. Gains, however incremental, can be made.“), but reading the piece, one got the sense that Checker was blinking out a different message: “THE SYSTEM IS BEYOND REFORM.”

Why? Well, let Checker explain.

Opponents of reform are powerful and entrenched.

Even though the political stars aligned enough that all twelve school board members had been appointed by Republican Governor Larry Hogan, the bureaucracy was able to slow-walk and even stifle reforms:

When our board took significant initiatives of its own, we ran into problems. Our new school-accountability plan under the Every Student Succeeds Act, which began with the merest hint during board conversations that perhaps the state should actually intervene in chronically failing schools, led to legislation designed to thwart any such move, claiming that our very words were a dire threat to local control. All major stakeholder groups—not just the powerful teachers unions, but also the school boards and superintendents’ groups—joined forces to block any assertive version of building-level accountability. This legislative blockade had happened before in Maryland, including back when long-serving state superintendent (Saint) Nancy Grasmick proposed outsourcing a few dire inner-city schools.

Would-be reformers are dependent on entrenched interests to provide them with needed information and to implement reforms.

State education departments are as set in their ways and as attuned to traditional stakeholders and their interests as are schools and districts. The first response to any reform suggestion is sure to be some combination of “here’s why that would be really hard to do” and “let’s consult the stakeholders and get their reactions and ideas.” The state superintendent is somewhere in between, formally (in Maryland and many states) accountable to the board that hired him/her but also enmeshed in the state’s longstanding assumptions, obligations, bureaucratic procedures (and capacities), and intertwined educator-career paths.

As a board member, however, you are dependent on that very same bureaucracy—and superintendent—to supply you with information, prepare your briefing materials, develop the policy options, draft the regulations, meet with stakeholders, and much more. How, exactly, do you serve as an independent check on—much less a future-oriented change agent for—a sclerotic agency that supplies you with the very stuff you need to play that role? […]

And as a board member, know that if your reform idea is not on the chief’s agenda, or he or she thinks it may undermine something that is, he or she has a thousand ways to subvert, slow-walk, or otherwise sideline it. So does the board’s attorney who is typically a career state employee and battle-weary veteran of many boards that came before yours and who expects to counsel many that will come after. That individual can (and is apt to) cite a hundred precedents, regulatory fine points, court rulings, and legislative histories that allegedly show why what you and your colleagues want to change simply cannot be done.

Political control favors those who are organized and powerful.

On one occasion, their reform effort was actually blocked by the governor who had appointed them:

In another realm, we had some support from legislators and local controllers but actually found ourselves battling the governor who named us. In that instance, business interests in Ocean City persuaded Hogan, whose enthusiasm for crowd-pleasing gestures has long been manifest, to vouchsafe the integrity of summer vacation by blocking any moves to lengthen the school year. Never mind that a huge number of less-than-proficient youngsters, many of them poor and minority, would benefit from more instructional time. Instead, he issued an executive order that essentially barred districts from opening school before Labor Day or remaining open after June 15. The initial order allowed waivers, however, and our board signaled that it would generously grant them. Hogan hastily revised his order to close that loophole. Here again, as with school accountability, we were doing our best to look after the interests of children but, here again, grownup priorities prevailed. (As I write—two years after that dust-up—legislators and Hogan are battling over whether to loosen the calendar restrictions.)

It’s not hard to figure out what happened here. Low-income families stand to gain the most from extending the school year, but that would interfere with the summer plans of wealthier families with a great deal more political capital. In a system where such decisions are made centrally via a political process, those with less political power lose.

Checker’s last lesson is “don’t despair” but he seems to be saying that ironically as the few reforms his board successfully managed to adopt fall woefully short of meaningfully reforming the system:

Constrained as we were by legislators, we still managed to create a wholly new school-accountability system that was—and is—better than anything that preceded it. (Schools now get “star” ratings, for example. Gifted kids qualify as a “subgroup” whose progress must be disclosed. There’s more.) Our efforts to overhaul high-school-graduation requirements and teacher-certification practices, though resisted by stakeholders’ addiction to the status quo, coincided with the work of an influential statewide education-reform commission and produced a unified array of worthwhile, if imperfect, recommendations for change. And on those occasions when the state superintendent’s own priorities turned out to align with the board’s—well, even the bureaucracy could end up helping more than hindering!

It is telling that the only two “successes” he touts include:

  • a new top-down accountability system (the effectiveness of which is yet unknown and likely to be undermined); and
  • a mere list of recommendations (“worthwhile, if imperfect”).

It doesn’t take a Straussian to get the real message: build new, don’t reform old.

If so, ed reformers should abandon the technocratic top-down reforms that have little to no hope of significantly improving the unreformable system and put all their efforts into building alternatives to it.

7 Responses to The System Is Beyond Reform

  1. matthewladner says:

    “The elite gets things wrong, says Douglas Carswell in The End of Politics and the Birth of iDemocracy, ‘because they endlessly seek to govern by design in a world that is best organized spontaneously from below.’ Public policy failures stem from planners excessive faith in deliberate design. ‘They constantly underrate the merits of spontaneous, organic arrangement, and fail to recognize that the best plan is often not to have one.’”

    -Matt Ridley

  2. George Mitchell says:

    Jason, this is good stuff. Completely apart from “equity” and its cousin narratives I think we are slowly, ever so slowly, convincing people that universal parent choice is the essential condition required to drive actual reform. Much much more slowly than I unrealistically expected years ago.

    • Jason Bedrick says:

      Indeed. Though I think the younger crop of conservative reformers have realized that technocratic reform is no reform at all. Sadly, they are greatly outnumbered.

  3. Jason Bedrick says:

    Checker has responded:

    Apparently, he thinks I’m only 30% right and 70% wrong, but his argument basically amounts to just repeating that “it’s just nuts not to try” technocratic reform. Based on the decades of repeated failures to enact sustainable and effective technocratic reform, others might come to a different conclusion about what’s nuts.

    Checker’s strongest argument is that “everything, including every form of school choice, is susceptible to capture or recapture, depending on who’s in leadership positions in states, communities (and Washington), depending on shifting returns, depending on how smart establishment forces are in devising clever recapture strategies—or just biding their time to strike when the moment is at hand.”

    Here, though, Checker is approximately 28.3% right and 72.7% wrong. It is incredibly difficult to enact school choice policies because the education establishment is powerful and organized. However, once implemented, school choice is nearly impossible to roll back. Even in Arizona, where opponents were able to use the ballot to block an expansion, they didn’t dare use the ballot to attempt to take away anyone’s ESA. The “Save Our Schools” people even repeatedly professed their support for the existing program (which sometimes conflicted with their messaging about how bad the program is), which demonstrates that they knew it would be a fool’s errand to attempt to actually roll back choice.

    In numerous states where technocratic reformers actually implemented reforms (after the political stars aligned for a short period of time, and after expending immense amount of resources and political capital), we’ve seen those reforms undermined or eliminated by subsequent administrations. But school choice survives. Opponents try to slow it down and they try to undermine it via regulations, but once parents have choice, they become a constituency that fiercely defends it.

    I have great respect for those, like Checker, who have toiled for decades trying to improve the quality of education in the system in which the vast majority of children find themselves. But given their experience, I think that the reform movement’s resources and energy would be put to better use working to build alternatives to the system.

    Ultimately, for a reform to be sustainable, it needs a constituency. I’ve yet to see a rally to preserve testing or school grades or alternative teacher certification. But we’ve seen plenty of rallies — rallies that have actually had a political impact — for school choice.

    It’s the ability to build a constituency willing to fight to preserve school choice that makes it the most promising of reforms.

    • George Mitchell says:

      As Jason, Jay, and others have noted, the “reform” movement includes numerous individuals and organizations convinced that they have the recipe for restructuring things to improve achievement/attainment and strengthen accountability. Milwaukee is on the verge of getting the latest dose of this, something variously called “harbor master” or “quarterback” or whatever. Absent tangible evidence, these well-intended initiatives have a predictable trajectory. Folks will feel good for awhile. They will have “task force” style meetings. They will collaborate “across sectors.” And on. And on.

      • Jason Bedrick says:

        Speaking of Wisconsin, we see that Gov. Evers — who has been campaigning against vouchers for years — isn’t actually going to try to roll them back. Granted, his party does not have control over the legislature, but odds are he wouldn’t actually try even if they did. (More likely he’d attempt to undermine it via regulations.)

        The one place we might see an actual rollback is Illinois, where the tax-credit scholarship bill included a sunset clause. All the opponents have to do is prevent legislative action to extend the sunset and they’ll get rid of the program — but that’s still a far cry from affirmative legislative action to reverse school choice.

      • George Mitchell says:

        Evers has proposed a voucher and charter freeze. Any attempt to implement that would be quite adverse, as we demonstrated in 2006 when Governor Doyle relented and signed a bill to increase the enrollment cap. Governor Walker to his credit proposed lifting the cap and the Legislature agreed. The current Legislature opposes the Governor’s freeze. Whether that position sticks when the heavy lifting begins later this year remains to be seen.

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