Why DC Mayor Fenty's and Chancellor Rhee’s Approach Schools Reorganization Matters to the School Improvement Providers
Why is edbizbuzz "picking on" District of Columbia Mayor Adrian Fenty and Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee's in their efforts to reorganize that city's troubled system? There are plenty of other dysfunctional urban districts, what's so special about their problematic approach to management? Why should a blogspace devoted to the emerging school improvement industry spend so much time on what's happening in one school district? What’s the relationship between Rhee and the industry?
Although it may be a neglected child, the school improvement industry was borne of the school reform movement. Philosophically, the industry springs from the idea that neither state socialism – in the form of the traditional centrally managed school district, nor state capitalism – in the form of the publishing oligarchy have the capacity to improve student performance, nor much interest, and so a new form of private sector entrepreneurship is needed.
Politically and as a matter of legislation this idea has taken three forms:
• Vouchers, to make public education an entirely consumer-driven market;
• Decentralization, expressed mostly as charters and including the idea of charter districts, where individual public schools are held accountable to consumers and to government for performance; and
• Rightsizing, reinventing the school district as a “better, faster, cheaper” centrally-managed organization by bringing in leaders with a corporate mentality, and applying business “best practices” to district operations.
The future of the school improvement industry lies with the second option. Vouchers remain so divisive politically that they simply cannot serve as the basis of any private firm’s business plan. By leaving sole decision authority in the center, rightsizing only assures a continuation of the old education industry – publishers and the superintendent’s friends. Only decentralization gives the still tiny school improvement firms the market they need to compete and grow.
The strategy pursued by Fenty and Rhee is not in the best interests of school reform for the reasons discussed in many other postings. It is not in the best interests of students for the same reason that no central authority knows local students’ better than local school. It is not in the best interests of teachers who can succeed without the paternalistic vision of a new great leader every few years. And it is not in the best interests of the school improvement industry because centralization with a corporate face will favor firms with the scale required to support large one-size-fits-all district-wide school contracts and a few people with ties to the Chancellor. State capitalism is not a market.