The Magazine

What If All Schools Were Schools of Choice?

At the rate things are changing, in ten years you may not recognize American public education

Jun 19, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 38 • By CHESTER E. FINN JR.
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

School accountability means more than "enforcement." Though D.C. schools are not yet perfectly transparent, a wealth of information about them is readily available to anyone. The District's school report cards contain much of it, but more is published in each school's annual report and kept up to date on school websites. One can, for example, download not only a detailed account of a school's philosophy and curriculum but also ample data on its student and staff characteristics, how it spends its money, the latest test scores, who serves on its governing board, the minutes of their meetings, and so forth. With enterprising journalists, researchers, parent groups, and others constantly scanning such information, school leaders realize that everybody knows what their school is and isn't doing. There are few secrets.

Every charter or contract school also has an annual site visit by a diverse team organized by its sponsor. Such visits yield immediate verbal feedback to the school operator and a written report that is shared with operator and sponsor. Most of the report is then published in the school's report card and put onto its website.

Every five years, a school's charter (or contract) comes up for renewal. This process entails heroic efforts by school leaders to document its performance, as well as rigorous external audits by the sponsor. There is ordinarily a public hearing, often taking the form of a "town meeting" with presentations by students, questions and challenges from the community, and explanations from school staff and board members.

The demise and reconstitution of schools contributes to the dynamism of the school system. In a typical year, a dozen schools close down, lose their contracts or charters, or are thoroughly reconstituted. Most were already on probation, but there are always surprises. Because these are usually painful, the city council recently authorized DCEC and its counterparts to gather more "distant early warning" data about schools.

The District is also committed to boosting the "supply side" of education. It has made grants (augmented by corporate and foundation gifts) to school incubators and technical assistance centers that help create new schools and trouble-shoot when extant schools come in harm's way.

Besides technical assistance, start-up money is available for new schools, as is access to a revolving fund for capital expenses. District schools can tap a half dozen sources of long- and short-term capital loaned by investors and bankers whose risks are mitigated by a guarantee program. This means that a low-income community group or a pair of teachers with a dream can start a school. Enterprise has also seized the construction industry, and a number of schools now occupy striking facilities that little resemble yesterday's schools.

Charter schools are having a magnetic effect on the teaching profession. Now that it's possible for almost any well-educated individual to become a provisional teacher, hundreds of people are lining up for classroom openings. Many think they want to teach for only a few years, and it remains to be seen how this will work out. Some astute school operators are experimenting with a two-tiered personnel system, in which a school organizes itself into teams, each consisting of a veteran teacher (earning roughly $ 100,000 annually) and a few short-termers (earning perhaps $ 40,000 annually). But many other variations are visible.

Each school makes its own salary decisions, but all staff members have the right to participate in the District's generous retirement system. Some schools try to cut corners on salaries, but the marketplace is lively enough that excellent teachers -- and those in scarce specialties -- have considerable leverage to negotiate solid compensation packages. Many schools also offer performance-based bonuses.

The teachers' union is changing, too. The most important shift was from District-wide to school-based bargaining, but changes also include unprecedented attention to professional quality control, training opportunities, productivity enhancement, and new career ladders. The industrial-era model of union operations has waned and most union contracts are flexible, more akin to the partnership agreements of a law firm than to the fruits of traditional collective bargaining.

The union itself now operates several schools, which serve as demonstration sites for fresh approaches to curriculum, instruction, staffing, and school organization. None of this has deflected the union from politics. But more and more of the organization's leadership are reasonably happy products of the new arrangement.

Public schools in the District must still employ certified teachers, but licensure no longer hinges on completing a traditional teacher-training program. Now anybody can obtain a provisional certificate who comes up clean on a background check, holds a college degree, and passes a rigorous exam that stresses subject-matter mastery. One can then earn a "regular" certificate by teaching successfully for at least two years. (All certificates must, however, be renewed every 10 years, at which time teachers' actual performance is appraised, first by their own schools, then by expert teams from the professional licensing bureau.)

Several D.C. accounting firms have opened divisions that specialize in school budgeting, payroll, and benefits. Private companies also specialize in school technology, including computer networks and website maintenance.

How is it all working? The jury is still out. Test scores are up nicely, but they remain significantly below where the District's standards say they should be. Many students still do not reach the "proficient" level. Yet dropout rates have plummeted, school violence is on the wane, and the rich-poor achievement gap is narrowing. At last count, a third of the schools were "guaranteeing" that youngsters who attend regularly and do the prescribed work would attain the academic standards.

A particularly bright spot on the education front is the enthusiasm shown by parents of disabled children. For the charter and contract schools that do not themselves focus on special-needs children, private providers of special-ed services have been a huge boon. Dozens of schools now contract with such organizations.

Amid the generally positive news about education in the District in 2010, we also note three concerns. A few conservative congressmen grump that the new system isn't saving taxpayers any money. A handful of parents complain that they suffer from information overload and must make too many choices. And a few politicians grouse that the unelected Court of Education Appeals has too much power.

Education paradise has not reached the nation's capital. But there is an unprecedented level of ferment and optimism, and early returns suggest that the new arrangements are gaining traction and improving the lives of thousands of youngsters.

GREGG VANOUREK;Chester E. Finn Jr. is president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation; Bruno V. Manno is senior program associate with the Annie E. Casey Foundation; and Gregg Vanourek recently completed his MBA at Yale University. They are co-authors of the just released Charter Schools in Action: Renewing Public Education (Princeton University Press).