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An Addendum to "Why Market-Based Reforms Don’t": What About Funding?

Yesterday’s “Letter From” argued that responsibility for the failure of market-based school reforms to break out of the margins of public education lies with those engaged in the reforms, more than the opposition of entrenched institutional interests who make up the status quo. If the opposition cannot be overcome, reform is obviously futile (and revolution may not be possible either). If the effort is not futile, then reformers need to start by accepting that the opposition’s opposition is not within the control of those engaged in reform; but reform activities are.

Finances are another external explanation for the marginal status of market based-reform. But like opposition, this is a factor beyond the control of reformers. Philanthropy and private investors decide whether to make capital available and on what terms. Legislators decide how much of the tax dollar might go to the reforms’ fee-for-service organizations. What‘s in the control of reformers is learning to play by those rules, doing their collective best with the financial wherewithal that’s been made available, and succeeding in terms that will cause those with the cash to provide more.

This has proved hard for market-based k-12 education reforms.

The charter school, comprehensive school reform, and school improvement industry movements all made a great pitch to government, philanthropy and private capital. Without going into details, they had a convincing story about how the current school system is mediocre at best, how they think they can fix it, why they think they can do it, and their estimate of the total cost. Given the vast number of proposals politicians, grants officers and venture capitalists see, these reforms did win a kind of lottery.

But the prize was essentially another lottery ticket. The response of government, philanthropy and private capital amounted to “You’ve convinced me it's possible. I’ll get you enough money to see if you can begin to make it happen. That story you told me is your end of the bargain. If you can deliver on its first couple of chapters, there will be more funding.” That’s how prudent investors operate, whether the capital is political or financial, and whether or not the cash comes with an expectation of financial profit. No one, and I mean no one, is fully funded in round one. Everyone has milestones to meet before the cash runs out and the next infusion becomes available.

So charters, comprehensive school reform organizations and school improvement providers got funding – enough to prove the reality of their vision. If it’s just not possible for school reform to succeed with that kind of financing, then reform is futile. I suppose we could take on reform of the political, philanthropic and private capital markets, but not if we hope to make any difference in public education in our own lifetimes.

The reality is that the individual organizations that are "the movements" and the organizations that purport to represent them haven’t done very well with the cash they have received. With few exceptions, the individual organizations fail to make use of potential economies of scale in non-core functions – from back office activities, to basic purchasing, marketing, lobbying, and yes – evaluation. With few exceptions, their “leadership” organizations lack the legitimacy and capacity to try. And now that we've reached or passed the first few chapters of the reformers' stories, the results aren't what investors were told they would see. And that's no way to raise more capital.

And so while cash is a constraint, it’s not a proximate cause of market-based reforms’ inability to move out of the margins into the mainstream. It really comes back to the reforms themselves - or more specifically, their real managers and self-proclaimed leaders.

Any hope of energizing market-based reform lies with the exceptions. I have some ideas on who they are and where to find them. And for a while I'm going to focus my writing on them - to bring them to readers' attention, to spur emulation from the grassroots, and maybe to encourage them to replace what passes for leadership today.

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