Fund the Child, Not the District

Learning / by

By Bruno Behrend

Mike Pettrelli and the Fordham Institute should be commended for starting the conversation on “school governance.” Mike’s two important posts on the topic can be found here and here. This triggered comments from the grande dames of the status quo, Randi Wiengarten and Diane Ravitch,. The discussion brings an important question into focus. Why do we even need “school districts?”

Of course, reading many of the comments on the posts shows just how difficult it is to kill a bad idea – particularly an entrenched idea like a school district – regardless of how expensive and counterproductive it is.

The commentary, even that of “reformers,” shows that people can’t yet envision an education system without the bureaucracy, powerless boards, “group rights” (what a frightening, tribal, concept), and the millions of unnecessary jobs that school districts force upon us.

Now that Mike has thankfully started this ball rolling, I’m happy to do what I can to shift the frame to the outer limits of possibility. Let’s open the “Overton Window.” Let’s end the tepid discussions about weak education “reform” and transform education into something that serves children and society – not the protected insiders that brought us to where we are.

Let’s get rid of school districts entirely.

Let us dismantle (over perhaps a 3-4 year time frame) these needless entities, and devolve school governance down to where it belongs – the school, and the people that choose that school.

Let us simultaneously re-order the entire incentive structure so that money follows the child to their chosen education provider, and not the politically powerful interests touting these artifices of fake “local control.”

Let us simultaneously transition away from failed ideas like “seat time,” concepts like 1st, 2nd and 10th grades, and most of all, that schooling be tied to zip codes. Zip code-based schooling is nothing more than codified educational apartheid enforced by inertia and an immoral parochialism that wants to “keep out the riff-raff.”

This will not be an easy battle, but it is time to start waging it. As opponents of reform love to point out, parochialism, educational apartheid, and adherence to the status quo are still popular among the electorate- especially the 8-12% of the electorate that shows up for off-year board races or party primaries.

Getting rid of school districts is a great idea, but it is still outside the political experience of the public.  That is no reason to avoid promoting it. A better idea, never proposed, gains no traction. Once proposed, refined, and developed, it can be tested and refined further as it gains traction.

We have the data that blended learning works. Why wait for an ossified school board to dilly-dally with your child’s future? A robust charter school outperforms most urban schools. Why should children stuck in failing schools wait 5, 10, 0r 15 years for an urban school board to churn failed “turnaround” plans?

What is the moral justification for waiting for a “district” to get it right? If a school is failing, devise a workable trigger mechanism forcing the district to disgorge the failing infrastructure. These triggers should include access to a new charter, a qualified private school, or a digital/on-line option.

Steve Jobs asked us all to “think different,” which is bad grammar yet still an excellent policy. One of the best ways we can truly “think different” relative to education is to question the need for school districts. Getting rid of them would free billions of dollars of resources that could be re-allocated toward independent schools, children, and the best providers of content.

As for the “democracy” argument (raised by Ravitch in the comments on Mike’s post), we simply need to get the majority on our side. More choices, where money follows the child out of the district, and into more effective learning options (digital, charters, private schools) is bound to be more popular than churning billions inside essentially useless and wasteful government entities. We simply have to start making the case.

That case is simple. Money following the child to more choices is the ultimate “local control,” and getting rid of districts will dramatically lower your property taxes. Don’t tell me that won’t fly.

15 Comments

OB /

“Zip code-based schooling is nothing more than codified educational apartheid enforced by inertia and an immoral parochialism that wants to “keep out the riff-raff.”

I agree with your assertion that we should think differently and that school districts – and most entrenched educational institution – should be up for debate and possibly elimination. One thing that bothers me about the quote above is that it dismisses the notion of quality “neighborhood schools.” Do you think there is still any value to building strong schools within communities that can serve as a center of civic discourse and engagement?

Darren Beck /

Bruno won’t likely remember this but it reminds me of a brief conversation I had with Bruno this past summer at the National Charter Conference at the Heartland Institute booth. I was impressed that while we may have other political differences of opinion, this whole notion of an education transformation, not reformation, is exactly what America needs. And now! Reforming something insinuates that it is worth reforming. Transforming something is evolutionary on a revolutionary scale that has to be happen if we are going to make it as a nation. I think we have done 28 years of reform (since ” 1983 and “A Nation at Risk”) and we have, at best, flatlined. And more than a few years of flatlining, at some level, is failing someone’s child in far too many zip codes. We’ve got to flesh this general notion out a bit more while getting some ballsy superintendents and boards that are willing to stop the mindless march into the meatgrinders and have them show how transformation really works! Great stuff.

Ed Jones /

School Districts as we know them are indeed of numbered days. They will fade because they cannot pretend to keep up with the educational options available to students. The change now in place–and growing daily–is simply too great.

Yet it is not through direct political action that they will go. It will be through technology.

And the speed with which we get the technology right will determine how fast they go.

Democracy is at its heart self-determination. (At least here in the US, under the vision of Jefferson). The school district was once useful because it empowered us as individuals, It gave us teachers, then books, then a network with other schools and places of learning.

Before we can dissolve the districts, we need to replace that function of empowering individual students. Having student turn over their allotted educational dollars to schools will soon put us back in the same boat we’ve been in: the teachers will see themselves as the content delivers. Wherever there are teachers who do not do that job well, we’ll get no more for our money than before.

Government is useful to the degree it empowers each of us. It is a failure when it blocks our potential. Yet as long as most people think they are getting benefit, they will not dissolve a form of government.

The postal service, by example, isn’t near as critical as it once was. Yet we still hold onto it. Tenaciously.

But the postal service also no longer holds us back. We replaced most of its functions with other infrastructure. We get our messages and media in seconds; our packages in hours or days; and still get our daily mail service until the day comes when most of us refuse to pay.

It’s time to move faster at replacing what the district did for us. Its time to build the infrastructure that allows students select lessons when they want them; classes when they need those; and teacher/oaches when the first two fail to deliver. It’s time to enable students to point dollars not at schools, or classes, or government positions; but at smart lessons first, credit-classes second, and great coaching/leading third to augment, motivate, and inspire.

Bruno Behrend /

OB asked:

One thing that bothers me about the quote above is that it dismisses the notion of quality “neighborhood schools.” Do you think there is still any value to building strong schools within communities that can serve as a center of civic discourse and engagement?

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Of course I think it’s important to build “strong schools.” I believe that such schools are an anchor for civic and community involvement.

I simply reject the notion that “school districts” create those schools. Rather, districts destroy “community school,” and convert them to mere franchises of the DOE and the NEA/AFT. Look at the state laws and how they lock districts into state and Federal mandates, and the idea of an “independent” board with “local control” becomes a joke.

I have attended enough school board meetings to see that “community” is more likely a victim of districts, and not a goal.

Suburban districts churn bonds and push paper, and large districts, more often than not, use their power to destroy community schools with their endless schemes to shift students, meet some silly “mandate” or experiment with some absurd social theory. Go against a their latest scheme and watch the “civil discourse” deteriorate.

I would argue that a Charter school, chosen by the the parents whose children attend it, is much closer to the model of a “community school” than any district school I’ve witnessed.

Bruno Behrend /

Ed,

The process you describe is taking place, but it is not enough to merely hope it does our work for us.

First, we transformers are up against a powerful and unscrupulous opposition that will “give a little” (a virtual program here, and charter there, and some tepid tenure or strike reform over there), secure in the knowledge that these tepid reforms can be reversed in the future.

Too many of us tout these tepid changes as “evidence” that the blob “gets it,” and is willing to change. It isn’t.

By all means, let’s get what we can where we can, but let us never take our eye off the ball, which is the eventually get to a process where the money follows the child to a vast new array of education options.

The “school district” will not fall on its own, or by its own weight. We should not apologize about giving it a good, hard push.

Bruno Behrend /

Darren,

I don’t remember every name, but I do remember conversations.

As for “fleshing things out,” I’ve begun some work on how one would transition out of a district system. In most states, it would likely require a rewrite of the state’s school code.

You can see a dated, but still robust framework at the here.

http://extremewisdom.com/wp-content/uploads/fundamental_execsumm.pdf

Brendan Murphy /

I think it was Steve Jobs who said “Apple market research” is an oxymoron. The Apple focus group was the right hemisphere of Steve’s brain talking to the left one. If you ask customers what they want, they will tell you, “Better, faster, and cheaper”—that is, better sameness, not revolutionary change.

Read more: http://blog.guykawasaki.com/2011/10/what-i-learned-from-steve-jobs.html#ixzz1fDLmvTvF

So having money follow the children probably won’t revolutionise schooling.

Now giving real choice, as in this is the philosophy and method of our teaching and how it is different, might I think do more to reform education.

Bruno Behrend /

Brendan,

Your definition of “real choice” is a bit inscrutable, but taking the regular meaning of your words, I would argue that “money following the child” is the only way that…

“this is the philosophy and method of our teaching and how it is different…”

can come to fruition. The district system makes true innovation nearly impossible. Sure, some one, somewhere, is always doing something “new” or “innovative,” but only in the confines of expensive, ossified, and counterproductive district constraints.

Ed Jones /

>”We should not apologize about giving it a good, hard push.”

Push a monolith?

>”eventually get to a process where the money follows the child to a vast new array of education options.”

Exactly. By setting up an infrastructure where parents and teachers–left, right, and center–beg for it to happen.

Brendan Murphy /

Bruno, money follows child is not the only way this could work. In many districts there are more than one of each school. The district I’m in has a dozen elementary schools, 5 middle schools, and 2 high schools (with four houses in each high school).
What if instead of each school being an interchangeable cog in the machine they all had their own distinct characteristics?
There is some precedent such as college track or vocational track in high schools, but what if we really emphasized differences? This is a project based school, this is traditionally skill based school, etc…
What if parents choose a local school not based on some test school, or a suspect recommendation, but on how they think their child could learn?
Parents are in integral part of education and good schools invariably have involved parents, but they are not education experts. Parents cannot be expected to do the fine grained evaluation between similar schools that you want them to do. They don’t have the time or the knowledge to make those evaluations.
In the end having money follow the children as you describe it will simply create a system where large amounts of public money shift here and there based on opinion.

I will expand on this in a blog post in a couple of days.

Ed Jones /

Brendan, see if the differentiation at Canton City schools fits what you have in mind:
http://timken.ccsdistrict.org/?q=node/90
- Arts Academy
- Technology Academy
- Services Academy
http://mckinley.ccsdistrict.org/smallSchool
- Freshman academy
- Alive (Active Learning & Inquiry Based, Valued Education)
- Impact School of the Arts
http://earlycollege.ccsdistrict.org/node/14
- McK STARS

Bruno Behrend /

Brendan wrote: What if instead of each school being an interchangeable cog in the machine they all had their own distinct characteristics?
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I think it’s a fine idea. Try getting a board to approve such “risky” scheme inside a state and federal testing framework.

Over the years I’ve fantasized that citizens may elect a school board that would question everything and try new things. When you consider the difficulty of getting them elected, and compound that with the necessary “waivers” from the state, it starts to look more impossible.

Now add the impact of unions and administrators. It can’t be done on a large scale. Can you find an example. Maybe. But it will be rare and short-lived.

Brendan wrote: Parents cannot be expected to do the fine grained evaluation between similar schools that you want them to do. They don’t have the time or the knowledge to make those evaluations.
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They only need make one or two evaluation. “Is my child learning what he is supposed to learn?” “Is my child happy and well-adjusted?”

I would gladly concede that not every parent is informed enough to gauge every aspect of these two questions if you’ll concede that $11,000/per child and nearly 15,000 needless government entities is doing just as lousy, or worse.

High performing districts are function of socio-economic status, not spending.

I don’t pretend that my version of reform is a panacea. It isn’t. It is simply this. Getting rid of districts won’t hurt one single performing school, but it will allow 10s of 1000s of kids an opportunity to find a better alternative than being warehoused by failing bureaucracies.

Money will “shift” to a wider variety of services. This can’t possibly under-perform when compared to the current over-priced, over-staffed, and over-staffed system.

Brendan Murphy /

Ed,
Yes that is what I am talking about, but why limit it to the high school? Can’t middle schools and elementary schools focus on different methods of teaching?
Can I radically re-imagine what an elementary school looks like?

Bruno Behrend /

I should proof my comments better ;-)

Brendan Murphy /

I am happy to admit that the Department of Education could do much better, but I don’t see them offering me a job either.

On the other hand our public schools are often much better than we realize.

http://philosophywithoutahome.blogspot.com/2010/01/public-or-private-school.html