Education Reformers Reflect at 25

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It’s been a quarter-century since the nation’s first charter school opened in Minnesota, prompting many self-proclaimed reformers to step back and reflect on their movement’s progress. Charters educated 2.5 million students this past year, in 6,700 schools across 43 states. Programs enabling students to attend private schools with vouchers are expanding. And in February, Teach for America celebrated its 25-year anniversary with a summit in Washington, D.C.—noting that of their 50,000 teachers and alumni, 40,000 are still under 40.

But challenges loom for the movement—politically and philosophically. Some tensions can be chalked up to growing pains: a nationwide bipartisan coalition is bound to disagree at times, and certainly policy implementation can be far more contentious than passing legislation. Transforming the public education system, reformers have found, turns out to be hard, messy work.

But the problems run deeper than that. Internally, two main camps of reformers—market-driven advocates and accountability hawks—have been butting heads increasingly over goals and political priorities. For a long time, these two groups seemed to be one and the same—“choice and accountability” have always been buzzwords for the movement. But over time, the divisions between Team Choice and Team Accountability have grown more apparent. Today, some veteran choice advocates, those who have been pushing market-driven reforms for the last 25 years, have expressed feelings of being hemmed in, and in some cases crowded out, by others who are demanding formal checks and balances.

Jeanne Allen, the president of the Center for Education Reform, is one such frustrated choice advocate. “Reformers have become our own worst enemy,” she declared at an event at the National Press Club earlier this month. Her group organized the event to release its new manifesto, outlining challenges Allen sees within education reform, and steps allies must take to get their movement back on track. “If we're to be honest with ourselves, we must acknowledge that our efforts to drive change have hit a wall,” she said. In Allen’s view, reformers saw more progress during their first nine years, than over the last 16.

Her manifesto cites a declining interest in Teach for America, decreasing enthusiasm for the education technology sector, and slower overall charter school growth. She says that officials who authorize charters have grown too overbearing, stifling flexibility and innovation. And she calls on the reform movement to get back on offense—to focus on “opportunity and upward mobility”—so they can begin rebuilding momentum.

Chester E. Finn Jr., president emeritus at the right-of-center Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education reform think tank, tells me he thinks Allen is correct to note that reformers have not looked ahead to the future enough. He worries that the current partisanship in the country threatens to splinter the reform coalition. But he says he thinks certain gains and accomplishments—like judging schools on whether students are learning, improved graduation rates, better tests, and more rigorous standards—are ones to be proud of. “She doesn’t really give them enough credit,” he says.

Greg Richmond, the president of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, tells me that while he felt many of Allen’s observations were accurate, the overall tone of her manifesto was too cynical and pessimistic. “In the places where we have a lot of charter schools, they won’t disappear,” he says. “The fight now is how many more are there going to be, and what are the regulations around them going to look like.”

Still, fairly stark divisions have emerged within education reform over what role “the market” should play in determining what kinds of public schools should exist and expand.

Some groups, like the Center for Education Reform, remain committed to the idea that parents should be able to choose the schools they think best meets the needs of their child. While all reformers still generally use this type of rhetoric, many have actually moved away from the more corporate “parents as customers” language that leaders like Allen still regularly employ. From the perspective of the Center for Education Reform, if a parent is satisfied with a school, then that is reason enough to assume it’s successful and working. If enough parents want to leave a school, and have the freedom to do so, the thinking goes, then bad schools will be inevitably shut down, just as bad businesses close if they can’t sustain demand for their products.

In her manifesto, Allen says that while charter authorizers have a role to play in terms of opening schools, it should be parental choice that determines whether or not schools close. “No accrediting agency has more of an incentive to keep kids out of bad schools than mothers and fathers,” she writes.

“Well, we just fundamentally disagree with that,” Richmond tells me.

Chester E. Finn Jr. says he’s also less willing to leave school accountability up to parents, and believes student outcomes have to be part of the conversation. “Jeanne is a little more willing to settle for a market test, and I want something else besides that. I’m also pretty fussy about achievement.”

Nowhere is this divide more evident than within the ongoing debates surrounding virtual charter schools, which more than 180,000 students attend full-time in 23 states and the District of Columbia. Last fall, multiple research studies found that virtual charter schools yield significantly worse academic results than traditional public schools. Building on those findings, this month, the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (Richmond’s group), and 50Can, an education reform advocacy group, jointly released a report with recommendations for states to hold virtual charters more accountable for student performance. “It is increasingly clear that full-time virtual charter schools are not a good fit for many children and that solely relying on self-selection in the enrollment process isn’t working,” their report said.

As Matt Barnum, an education policy writer for The 74 observed, that reform groups opted to say ‘self-selection’ –rather than “choice”—highlights some of the tensions of this particular moment. For so long, reform advocates argued that schools should be measured on the basis of whether parents choose them. (Or “self-select” them.) But now more groups are saying that perhaps unfettered choice is not the best policy after all.

“What most of the folks in the charter world realized after ten years was that having an unfettered market produced some great schools, but also a lot of bad ones,” Richmond says. He notes that groups like the Walton Family Foundation used to be very generous in terms of who they would fund. “There was a period of time where it was as if almost anyone who wanted to open a charter school could get a grant of $100,000 from the Waltons. It ran like that for a number of years, until eventually they looked at the results and decided this wasn’t working.”

“As supportive as I am about entrepreneurialism and private sector engagement," says Finn, “there’s also been a lot of greedy behavior—a lot of ‘to the heck with the kids’—and we reformers didn’t really pay enough attention to that.”

The Center for Education Reform issued a statement sharply critical of the three groups’ report, saying it “exemplifies precisely why the education reform movement is at risk—its conclusions endanger the ideals of opportunity and innovation that are so desperately needed in education today.” At the National Press Club, Allen went further, saying there’s been a “death march” around research studies, with too many reports and academics critiquing various aspects of reform, which then inhibits a culture of risk and innovation.

Efforts to transform public education aren’t going away, but what shape they will take going forward remains unclear. A growing number of people, including both school choice advocates and education reform opponents, say there’s little evidence that standardized test score gains in math and reading lead to improved long-term life outcomes. This has further fueled debates over how students should be tested, and how schools should be held accountable for test scores. There are also growing disputes among reformers over the role of for-profit companies, and what type of regulation and accountability a choice-based system really needs.

“I don’t feel that charters are going to go away, but I do believe they will become so hamstrung they will become like the traditional school system,” said Donald Hense, the founder of one of D.C.’s largest charter networks, at the National Press Club earlier this month. Richmond tells me that while he whole-heartedly agrees some authorizers have gone too far in regulating charter schools, many don’t go far enough.

In late May, Robert Pondiscio of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, penned a provocative post warning of a narrowing space for conservatives within education reform; its “increasingly aggressive” social justice rhetoric, he said, has served to marginalize Republicans and conservative ideas. A fellow conservative, Fredrick Hess, the director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, followed up, lamenting what he described as growing “groupthink” within the movement. “It has undermined the healthy competition of ideas,” Hess said. “It has weakened the ability to sustain bipartisan cooperation. It has rendered the space less hospitable to young minds who may not share the current orthodoxy.” These and other critiques have sparked a flurry of internal discussion and debate about the future of the coalition—a fairly healthy conversation as reformers work to grow a more diverse movement, but one that has also left people divided over just how existential these problems really are.

As education policy devolves back to the states, as it’s set to do through the Every Student Succeeds Act, which Congress passed in December, we’re likely to see much more school variation across states and communities. Teacher unions and market-driven reformers have cheered these developments, but many civil rights groups and accountability hawks worry about what a decreased federal role will mean for struggling students. As reformers continue to mobilize, so do their critics. The discussion around school integration has grown louder over the past two years, and more community advocates are exploring models like full-service community schools as ways to boost student success.

Needless to say, the next quarter-century will require close attention.

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