School & District Management

Group to Push for Focus On Innovative, Start-Up Schools

By Debra Viadero — October 01, 2003 2 min read
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If a person can’t jump six feet into the air, no threats or promised rewards will get him there. So why are federal and state policymakers insisting that schools will change once governments hold them more accountable?

That’s the rationale a pair of Minnesota scholars used last week as they kicked off what they hope will become a nationwide initiative to nurture a new “open sector” for schools at the nexus of public policy and entrepreneurial innovation.

Rather than pressure traditional schools to improve, as the federal No Child Left Behind Act and other improvement efforts have done, policymakers should focus on fostering innovative start-up schools within the public sector, they argue.

“The decision to have all the chips bet on districts’ being able to do what they have never done successfully—and which there is considerable reason to believe they inherently cannot do—is a gamble,” said Ted Kolderie, a senior associate at the Center for Policy Studies, a think tank based at Hamline University in St. Paul.

The call for “open sector” schools is part of a new project called Education/Evolving begun by Mr. Kolderie and Joseph P. Graba, a senior fellow at the public-policy center. Unveiled in St. Paul last week, the project is a joint effort between Hamline University and the center.

More information on the group’s efforts is available from Education/Evolving.

Its aim is to stoke a national discussion on such schools as the crucial mechanism for improving educational achievement. The scholars define “open sectors” as organizational spaces in which start-up schools can flourish, free from the regulations governing traditional public schools.

Akin to Alternative Schools

Such schools are not new to public education, the project’s founders said in an interview last week. Since at least the 1970s, alternative schools have provided ways for some students to get more individualized, nontraditional instruction within the public sector.

“The problem was, you had to get in trouble to be in them,” said Mr. Graba, who is a former state legislator and former deputy education commissioner in Minnesota.

Likewise, charter schools—the first of which opened in Minnesota in 1991—offer similar opportunities for innovation.

To succeed on a large scale, though, states must make a concerted effort to create open sectors, Mr. Kolderie and Mr. Graba said. Those spaces might take many forms, they added, noting that New York City school officials are debating whether to form a separate district to oversee the dozens of charter schools the city system expects to open over the next few years.

To help establish and expand open sectors, the scholars said, states should improve existing charter school laws and devise better processes to guide the organizations that sponsor the new schools. Ideally, their group maintains, such schools would operate on performance-based contracts and receive the same amount of per-pupil funding as traditional schools.

“We’ve got to move from thinking of this as a loose connection of small schools to a serious effort,” Mr. Graba added.

He and Mr. Kolderie are being joined in their efforts by half a dozen scholars and education activists. They include Ronald A. Wolk, the founding editor and publisher of Education Week, who is now the chairman of the board of the newspaper’s nonprofit parent company, Editorial Projects in Education.

The scholars acknowledged, however, that their crusade for new public schools would be an uphill effort.

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