Commentary

School Reform Options: Rock or Hard Place?

The United States is sliding toward dictatorship in what many regard as the bulwark of American democracy: our public schools. It’s not a jackbooted-thug dictatorship; rather, a massive concentration of power in a few hands. For instance, in Detroit, Michigan, and Washington, D.C., debates are brewing over stripping control of schools from boards of education and consolidating it in the hands of mayors. In cities like New York, Boston, and Chicago, it’s already been done.

Why this trend? Because, like the dilapidated institutions that have given rise to autocracies throughout history, many of our school districts are broken, and democratic bodies — school boards — are largely to blame. Too often these boards are mere rungs on the career ladders of politicians trying to make names for themselves. Photo opportunities and posturing are allowed to trump education. “What we have today in the local school board,” writes Denis Doyle and former Assistant U.S. Secretary of Education Chester Finn, “especially the elected kind, is an anachronism and an outrage…. We can no longer pretend it’s working well or hide behind the mantra of ‘local control of education.’”

With confidence in elective bodies lost, school systems have increasingly turned toward mayoral control, exchanging the paralysis of school boards for the efficiency of consolidated power. In many cases, it seems to be working. Since Mayor Richard Daley took over Chicago’s schools the percentage of education-money going to instruction has increased and the dropout rate has fallen. Boston has experienced modest test score increases since its schools came under the control of Mayor Tom Menino. And Sol Stern reports in the City Journal that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein “have dismantled the dysfunctional old bureaucracy, put the teachers’ and principals’ unions on the defensive, and created a streamlined administrative apparatus to funnel a bigger slice of the systems’ $12.5 billion annual budget into the classroom.”

Unfortunately, there is a dark side to this success. As Stern reports, there is a decidedly dictatorial turn in New York City, where the mayor is “micromanaging teachers and principals to an extent unprecedented in American K-12 education. Agents of the chancellor (euphemistically called ‘coaches’) operate in almost all of the city’s 1,200 schools to make sure that every educator marches in lockstep with the Department of Education’s approved pedagogical approaches. There is now only one way … to teach the three R’s in the schools.”

Arguably, chief among the sources of discontent in the Big Apple is the mayor’s imposition of a reading program called “Month by Month Phonics” in all but a few schools. Critics of the curriculum argue that despite having “phonics” in its title, the program provides little such instruction — a potential disaster for struggling city students. Unfortunately, with power consolidated in the mayor’s hands, no one in New York City can block the program’s implementation.

It’s a situation that illustrates the danger of vesting power in one person: Everyone must abide by his dictates, wise or not. When wise, the results can be positive. But what happens when it’s the latter? In New York City’s schools, if the critics are right, it could mean illiteracy for thousands of children. Historically, we know that the consequences of unchecked power can potentially be worse.

But if mayoral control is too dangerous and school boards are too ineffective, what can be done to save failing districts? The answer: Government — the source of the problem — can be bypassed. Parents can be empowered with school choice, and schools themselves can be given autonomy. Parents and schools, not ineffectual school boards or unfettered mayors, can be put in control.

While no totally choice-driven district exists in the United States, the evidence is clear that where even limited choice is available, it’s working. Academically, numerous studies have shown that students whose parents have exercised choice do at least as well as their public school peers. More telling, the sort of deep dissatisfaction that has fueled drives to exchange inept school boards for dictators is nowhere to be found among choosers. Polls consistently show overwhelming satisfaction among parents who choose their children’s schools.

As school districts have failed, parents have typically been offered only two options: leave power with bumbling school boards or concentrate it in the hands of a single person. History has shown both options to be dangerous. Fortunately, choice offers something better.

Neal McCluskey is a policy analyst with the Center for Educational Freedom at the Cato Institute.