Federal Opinion

Here’s An Alternative to Betsy DeVos’ Privatization Agenda

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — February 20, 2017 4 min read
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We know Betsy DeVos has an idea: privatize education. California thinks it has a better idea: make government-run public schools work better.

Nowhere does this agenda become clearer than watching State School Board President Michael Kirst describe how the pieces of the state’s education reform agenda fit together.

In just over 30 minutes Kirst outlined the state’s progress on more than 15 interlocking reforms including standards, curriculum, accountability, financing, and technology, all aimed at the classroom rather than school governance. “If you’re not improving classroom instruction, you are working at the overhead level,” he told a Policy Analysis For California (PACE) policy conference audience. (A video of his talk is embedded at the end of this column.)

As Kirst illustrated with a Cartesian-like graphic, he and the state’s education reform coalition have embraced a systems approach to school change. California has been most recognized for it’s ongoing resistance to what Kirst calls “federal overreach” of the Obama-Duncan-King administration. By refusing to over-testing and linking teacher evaluation to standardized test scores it avoided both the teacher wars and the opposition to higher Common Core standards experienced in other states. Anchoring the curriculum in standards has allowed California to begin to create a coherent system. “You have to look at all of your policies and make them aligned, coherent, and in depth,” Kirst said.

He then stepped through the new California standards and the policies—from curriculum to state assessments—necessary to bring about successful results. And he pointed to places where there were still gaps. (See above)

As two other Californians, Jennifer O’Day and Marshall Smith, have argued, if the problem is big—systemic—then the solution needs to be also. They point to school districts such as Long Beach and Garden Grove in California, Montgomery County, MD, and states such as Massachusetts “where success has not come from isolated and piecemeal interventions, for which U.S. education seems to have a penchant, but rather from strategies carefully integrated into the system so that they contribute to, rather than detract from, the system’s overall effectiveness.”

As I listened to Kirst, I thought of the shambles that the already-embattled education secretary, DeVos, made of her confirmation hearings. DeVos demonstrated defiant incompetence and contempt for educators. Kirst demonstrates competence, the kind of competence that understands schools well enough to make big changes in them. He’s in his fourth term as state board president, and as he put it, “the first and fourth terms are separated by 40 years.”

Rather than arrogance, Kirst counsels “persistence, patience, and humility.” He added, “It’s going to take a long time to do what we are trying to do...and we don’t know how they are going to work out.” But the state put its chips down in the direction of continuous improvement.

It’s taken fortuitous circumstances, combined them with some big ideas, and sustained a political coalition to support them. As political scientist John Kingdon argued more than three decades ago, these opportunity windows open and close. For the past eight years California has enjoyed stable governance of education and rising revenues. Both allowed the policy elements in Kirst’s wheel to be enacted.

The state is now well into the hard part: implementation and sustaining the reform coalition. Implementation of policy ideas is far more important and difficult than legislating them. It requires knowledge, skill, and the social capacity to work together.

Betsy DeVos likes Florida’s vouchers and unrestricted charter schools. “Florida is a good and growing example of what can happen when you have a robust array of choices,” DeVos said last week.

Her choice agenda threatens California’s progress toward its systemic continuous improvement agenda. The existing political coalition will have to hold together and expand. It will be challenged over the next year.

Revenues are becoming tight again. Brown will be leaving office in 2018 and Kirst will leave then too, I suspect. The legislature will attempt to micromanage, as it is given to do. Civil rights community, with its inherent distrust of local government, will want to centralize again. Teacher unions, having largely squandered an historic opportunity to reshape how professionals are represented, will play defense.

Crisis mongers will run for public office in California. Like DeVos, they will talk about public school failures. They will link choice to civil rights. They will attempt to shift the agenda from improvement to expanded choice, which undermines public education just as surely as an uncontrolled spillway undermines the Lake Oroville Dam.

I’m announcing now that I am not supporting any crisis mongers in 2018: no ink, no money, not my boots on the ground for your campaign. I’m voting for continuous improvement, competence, and systemic thinking.

(Graphic: Courtesy of Michael Kirst)

Kirst Presentation at PACE Policy Conference

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.