For the last quarter century, education reform has been played as a game of control. In a phrase from a popular management book, it’s been about getting the right people on the bus and the wrong people off. It’s regime politics: my folks on, yours off. But regime politics is expensive, often transitory, and frequently irrelevant.
Tuesday, in another exercise in regime politics, a few voters will go to the polls in the Los Angeles Unified District to choose a school board member in District #1. In a campaign that has turned negative and nasty, retired (and legendary) school administrator George McKenna faces aspiring politician Alex Johnson. Johnson’s campaign, or people supporting him, have said McKenna was culpable in a LAUSD sex abuse scandal. McKenna supporters have said Johnson is a rookie, who knows little about education.
McKenna has the backing of the teachers and administrators unions, the county Democratic party, and current board members Steven Zimmer and Bennett Kayser. Johnson is heavily supported by his former boss, county supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, the California Charter Schools Association, school board member Tamar Galatzan, and former board president Monica Garcia.
I had thought that regime politics had reached its apogee in the 2013 school board election. Then, incumbent Zimmer, who was endorsed by United Teachers Los Angeles, faced challenger Kate Anderson, who had the backing of then-mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Before Zimmer was returned to office with 52 percent of the vote, the two campaigns had spent $64 a vote. By comparison, Mitt Romney’s campaign spent $20 a vote in the previous year’s presidential election, the most expensive in national campaign history. Given that only 8 to 10 percent of the voters are expected to show up at the polls on Tuesday, the per-vote cost of the District #1 campaigns may be another record buster.
It’s enough to make you think that there must a better way.
Smart people are supposed to learn from history, but educational interest groups, including those who call themselves reformers, are so wedded to regime politics that they can’t change course.
Of course, it’s important who drives the bus and who directs its destination, as Hillel Aron argues in L.A. Weekly. But has anyone looked at the bus lately? This relic was designed early in the last century. The bus—the institution of public education, if you will—has been scorned, delegitimized, and hollowed out, a story that we tell in Learning from L.A., and which other writers tell about other cities.
Regimes are supposed to last for a long time—certainly longer than the term of office of a superintendent or elected official—and they are supposed to usher in permanent changes. But, increasingly, the evidence from New York, Chicago, Newark, Washington, D.C., and L.A. is that reforms they bring are transitory and often peripheral.
And they sure are expensive, not just in campaign dollars, but in the way that they crowd out substantive discussions about change and the possibility of forming larger and more stable coalitions.
Building a better bus requires capacity-building politics: a conscious willingness to invest political capital in changing how students learn and teachers teach in school and outside. Very little of the regime politics discussion in California—or the country for that matter—has been focused on changing teaching and learning. It’s not that advocates don’t care about teaching and learning. Yet, most of the political muscle is spent either defending the existing system and narrow bits of privilege that attach to it or grabbing for magic-bullet programs aimed at improving scores on tests that many, if not most, practitioners no longer believe in.
Maybe—just as a thought experiment—some of those interest groups so eager to pour money and energy into school board elections could ponder the possibilities of systematically changing teaching and learning.
Our kids don’t just need an old bus with a new driver; they need a new bus.
The opinions expressed in On California are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.