Toward a New Public School

Can Transform America's Schools
by Paul T. Hill, Lawrence C. Pierce, 
and James W. Guthrie.

The University of Chicago Press, 
267 pages, $16.95.


Here from three experts on education policy, is an idea for "reinventing" American public education. The idea is simple, neat, and familiar: have school boards cease to operate schools directly and instead contract with private (not-for-profit or for-profit) organizations to provide day-to-day schooling. That is, arrange for schools to work the way the selection of textbooks now does. School boards do not design and print texts; they decide what they want and then choose from the offerings of vendors. If after a year or two a text is found wanting, another is readily at hand to replace it. The wishes of school boards profoundly affect what publishers print. There is synergy here, hardly perfect but demonstrably better than any available alternative. This arrangement allows for choices among competing texts, is flexible, and leaves room for experimentation. It keeps the boards away from the nuts and bolts of publishing, allowing them to concentrate on other matters. It permits decisive, orderly changes in educational approach.
If such a policy were extended from textbooks to the design and operation of whole schools, boards of education would start by setting the scope and standards of the educational offerings they wanted. They would then solicit bids from providers, select one or several, and write contracts with each. From that point forward the detailed operation of a school, or a cluster of schools, would be in the hands of the contractor, though shaped by the contract. The school boards could focus their attention on overall policy rather than on micromanaging individual schools. Contracts would come up for renewal periodically, giving the school board the option of staying the course, modestly or substantially changing it, or starting anew.

All this is familiar American practice. Many public or quasi-public entities contract for much of their work: school districts hire Marriott to operate their cafeterias; the U.S. Postal Service asks Delta and American to haul mail; city and town governments contract with builders to construct public buildings. There have been several, albeit halting, attempts to run public schools under contract, but these have been essentially limited management contracts, not freshly focused and bold reconceptions of what a good modern education should entail.

So, then, what makes this orderly, familiar, and thus presumably uncontroversial proposal a "reinvention"? Some will predict the apocalypse: privatization! They forget that publicly directed bodies unilaterally write the specifications for contract schools. More critics will predict "union-bashing." They overlook the fact that progressive district leaders and unions across the country have already joined in launching new schools that are largely free from traditional regulation. Yet other critics will see contract schools as devices for segregation. They forget that (alas) many metropolitan regions are already profoundly segregated. Contract schools will not necessarily affect this one way or the other.

The book's title reminds us how profoundly we are stuck even in the way we think about schooling and learning. We assume that formal education will be delivered by professionals working inside rectangular classrooms within buildings that together with similar buildings elsewhere in the community make up a system. We assume that such systems, whatever their size, are an important expression of democracy, reflecting the wishes of their communities.

However, even as these systems have had to deal with growing numbers of ever more diverse children, they have clung to their routines, inevitably making public education, the authors say, "more rule-bound, rights-driven, and divided into specialties." And, they continue, by centralizing decision-making in district offices, courts, and state departments of education, "we have weakened schools as organizations." Many districts are now enormous enterprises, enormously complex and thus rigid. There are currently more children enrolled in the New York City public schools than there are citizens in Rhode Island.

And we keep thinking that "public education" is necessarily, inevitably, the same thing as those enterprises. What they consider to be education becomes what is offered in the classroom; people's hopes for and commitment to their children are properly synthesized and then expressed through bureaucracies and their political chiefs. We find ourselves trapped by a conception of schools that is appealingly noble but demonstrably impractical. We are dominated by what the authors call an "organizational frame of mind" -- one that makes any examination of the most efficacious ways and means of educating our children apostate, unthinkable. "Educators' habits of operating as bureaucrats under regulation are deeply ingrained," the authors say. Hence this book's argument for reinvention.

HILL, Pierce, and Guthrie exhaustively describe how a contract system might work. They deal with the practicalities, knowing full well that to avoid them would allow the book to be dismissed as pie in the sky. A long appendix deals with a wide range of questions about precisely how a contract would function. The authors are good and patient explainers. They are persuasive: all this can be made to work. This book isn't Rousseau's Emile. It is a highly sophisticated field manual, along with an argument for the importance of its message. It is likely, therefore, to be effective. Reinvention will come, sooner or later.

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