Education Letter to the Editor

State Role Lessens President’s Impact

January 22, 2008 1 min read

To the Editor:

David S. Seeley’s Commentary “Where Is Education in the 2008 Election?” (Jan. 9, 2008) correctly identifies the need for systemic change in our nation’s public schools. But he is asking the wrong people for an answer.

As it stands now, education is in the hands of the states and not the federal government, which provides only about 7 percent of the funding for this enterprise. The other 93 percent trickles down to school districts in a convoluted hodgepodge of funding formulas that, for the most part, are unfair and irrational.

How, then, could a president perform the laudable tasks Mr. Seeley outlines as part of a “comprehensive system redesign” when he or she is in charge of only a mere fraction of the money? History has shown that, at least since 1983, even those presidents who have involved themselves seriously in education reform have not been able to deliver.

The other recommendations Mr. Seeley makes are noteworthy but are based on a faulty premise. He believes that the necessary cultural change can be made within the system, when that is the most difficult task to accomplish. In his soon-to-be-published book Disrupting Class, the Harvard Business School professor Clayton M. Christensen applies business concepts to an analysis of the education industry. He argues that, in line with his findings in his previous books The Innovator’s Dilemma and The Innovator’s Solution, it is almost impossible to change organizational culture enough to absorb the “disruptive innovations” necessary to keep the business afloat. This is all the more true in situations in which the discipline of the marketplace doesn’t operate because the entity is a monopoly.

All you have to do to see this is examine how fiercely the education establishment fights against public charter schools that are trying to introduce innovations in the ways we teach children. It’s all about money and power, and as long as the structure of and the incentives in the system remain the same, the results will be the same, and our children will suffer for it.

Gisèle Huff

San Francisco, Calif.

A version of this article appeared in the January 23, 2008 edition of Education Week as State Role Lessens President’s Impact