School Choice & Charters Opinion

L.A. Board Vote Reveals Charter Politics

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — January 13, 2016 4 min read
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On Tuesday, the Los Angeles Unified School District board unanimously passed a resolution that pushes back against an agressive charter school expansion plan from the Broad Foundation that was revealed last summer. No matter that the board knows full well that the plan itself is a dead letter and that a much revised version of Great Public Schools Now is in the works and likely to be revealed in the next two months.

The 7-0 vote was a political marker, directing the new superintendent Michelle King to examine the effects on the district of substantially increasing the number of charter schools, and it underscores an important missing element in the charter school debate. It has been an article of faith among school choice advocates that by providing charters and other choice mechanisms the hidden hand of the market will replace political conflict and interest groups. Problem is: it’s not true.

A stunning new, still unpublished, paper by Paul Hill and Ashley Jochim “refutes the common belief among reformers that the key to success is to circumvent politics.” Hill is no stranger to school choice reforms. He founded the Center for Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, where Jochim works, and is among the nation’s foremost advocates of the concept of portfolio school districts.

Under the portfolio concept, school districts assemble the best schools they can by investing in high performing schools regardless of who runs them, and disinvesting in poorly performing ones. Some may be traditional public schools, some magnet schools, some charters. Thus, portfolio districts create two kinds of choice: students and parents get options, and the school district gets to pick what kinds of schools it supports.

Not Free From Interest Groups

The rhetoric of school reform treats portfolio creators as free of political interests in contrast to rapacious teacher unions and self-protecting school administrators. Because they, and the schools they create, are free from politics, they can innovate and adapt rapidly, outpacing the sluggish pace of incremental reforms within traditional school districts.

But when Hill and Jochim examine reform efforts in New York City, New Orleans, Denver, Oakland and Newark, five urban school districts that have attempted to implement the portfolio model, they find the process to be extremely political and very protracted.

New York Reforms Pushed Back

For example, in the most powerful example of executive takeover of a school district, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his handpicked schools chancellor, Joel Klein, bypassed much of the existing school bureaucracy and introduced sweeping changes that lasted as long as the mayor’s 12 years in office. These have been substantially blunted if not reversed under the current mayor, Bill de Blasio.

State takeovers in Oakland led to transitory change, and in Cleveland it took nearly 20 years after the state put the mayor in charge to get reforms rolling. Struggles continue 15 years after the state took over the Philadelphia district.

In New Orleans, the state took over the school district with little opposition after hurricane Katrina, but as Hill and Jochim put it, “local politics returned as quickly as the residents did.” Even in this most extreme example of creating a portfolio system of charter schools, both the struggle to implement the new system and the politics surrounding it remain intense a decade later.

Hill and Jochim do a great service to the debate over school reform by casting portfolio reforms as inherently political as opposed to the hidden hand force of the market. All politics are about interests and interest groups: wanting control over something or keeping control of something.

‘Reformers’ As An Interest Group

The foundations, philanthropists, and civic elites that Hill and Jochim call “the reformers” want something. They want dominance over public education. They want to rebrand the word public as something other than the delivery of schooling by a government agency called a school district.

In order to do this, they need to take away resources controlled by that system: jobs held by teachers, access to school building and property, control over the means of training and hiring.

Placing school reform in this context invites bare-knuckle politics. And that’s what has resulted.

It’s not about who has the best idea; it’s about who can gather and sustain the most power. As the authors note at the end of the paper, politics is the strong and slow boring of hard boards. It takes time and involves setbacks.

So, when someone comes to your town with the promise that they can change your failed urban schools, do it quickly, and make an end run around urban politics, don’t believe them.

Going Deeper:

Readers who would like a copy of the Paul Hill and Ashley Jochim paper, can write Hill at Bicycle@u.washington.edu.

Earlier, I wrote about how Los Angeles might avoid the charter school wars. The references there provide more examples of the politics of portfolio reforms.

For a substantive look at the New York reform efforts, take a look at Jennifer A. O’Day, Catherine S. Bitter and Louis M. Gomez edited book Education Reform in New York City: Ambitious Change in the Nation’s Most Complex School System. (Harvard Education Press, 2011.)

To see portfolio efforts in several cities: Katrina E. Bulkley, Jeffrey R. Henig, and Henry Levin, Politics, Governance and the New Portfolio Models for Urban School Reform. (Harvard Education Press, 2010).

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