The Paradox of Public Education

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Schools are controlled by the government, but they serve specific communities with niche needs. How can education be publicly funded but privately managed?

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Public education struggles with two conflicting facts. First, public schools are small craft organizations that require close teamwork and constant adaptation to the unpredictable development of students. Second, they are government agencies always subject to constraints imposed through politics and legal processes.

In the more than half-century since Brown v. Board of Education, the second set of facts has dominated the first. Public schools have been subject to court orders about how particular students must be educated; federal and state regulations that dictate how money is used, students are grouped, and teachers work; and labor contracts that force schools to employ teachers who are poorly matched to the needs of students and the strengths of other teachers.

School leadership, personal responsibility, and accountability have been driven out of schools, especially in big cities where local politics adds to the burden of regulation. This is not, as some have claimed, inevitable when adults educate other people's children. Private schools govern themselves, attract like-minded faculty members and parents, and can turn on a dime when students' needs change.

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At its core, today's debate about K-12 public education is about how to make public sponsorship compatible with effective education. Charter schools are public schools that can take well-defined approaches to instruction, assemble teams of educators who want to collaborate, and attract parents who have choices. Portfolio school districts like New Orleans and New York City are building whole systems around autonomous schools (charters and others that operate under performance and resourcing agreements that emphasize school freedom of action), redefining what is possible under the banner of public education.

The combination of chartering and instructional technology is also opening public education to individualization and innovation that could make schools much more effective for all children. Rocketship, a chain of charter schools based in San Jose, CA, provides core instruction and immediate remediation online, so teachers can work on persistent learning deficits, lead discussions, and point students to enrichment opportunities. "The things that adults like to do to help children is different than the things we seem to do all day long in low-income schools," Rocketship co-founder John Danner explained in an interview with the Christian Science Monitor. "I think that's an overlooked part of burnout with teachers. If you can take those rote skills and automate them, you can free up classroom time for teachers to focus on the things they can uniquely do."

New York City's Innovation Zone is also developing "hybrid" schools that make new uses of technology and profoundly change what students and teachers do every day. Without deregulation, including freedom to hire teachers and principals committed to these new ideas, public education would exclude such approaches.

These arrangements are good for serious educators and for children and families, but they rely on human judgment and performance, and not every freed-up public school is a success. Groups that prospered under the old system are constantly looking for problems that can justify the return of regulation. That won't happen as long as the attentive public remembers that there are many ways government can destroy good schools, and only one known way that it can support them.

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Paul T. Hill is the founder of the Center on Reinventing Public Education and a research professor at the University of Washington Bothell. More

Paul T. Hill is the founder of the Center on Reinventing Public Education and a research professor at the University of Washington Bothell. His current work focuses on re-missioning states and school districts to promote school performance, choice and innovation, and finance and productivity. He leads the Portfolio School Districts Project and has built a national network of school district officials, mayors, foundations, nonprofits, and others who are pursuing the portfolio strategy. He also chaired the National Working Commission on Choice in K-12 Education. 

Hill's books include Strife and Progress: Portfolio Strategies for Managing Urban Schools (2012), Learning as We Go: Why School Choice Is Worth the Wait (2010), Making School Reform Work: New Partnerships for Real Change (2004), Charter Schools and Accountability in Public Education (2002), It Takes A City: Getting Serious About Urban School Reform (2000), and Fixing Urban Schools (1998). He is editor (with Julian Betts) of Taking Measure of Charter Schools: Better Assessments, Better PolicymakingBetter Schools (2010) and Charter Schools Against the Odds (2006). He is a distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution and a member of the Koret Task Force on K-12 Education. He holds a Ph.D. and M.A. from Ohio State University and a B.A. from Seattle University, all in political science.
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