I talk to Andy Smarick about the urban school system of the future…
EduShyster: Let’s talk about the future. In your vision, urban parents will choose between their choice of high-performing charter schools. But one can’t help but observe that the cities that seem to be hurtling towards the future at the greatest velocity don’t seem to have all that much choice about where they’re headed.
Andy Smarick: I don’t agree with that at all. I believe that the systems that are going in that direction are places where families, communities and organizations have the most say. They’re places that have the longest charter school wait lists, or in some cities they have the longest scholarship or tax credit wait lists. What I do agree with you about is that in these systems where there are more and more autonomous schools, we don’t have a system yet for ensuring that there is democratic control of the entire system. I think these cities are showing us that parents desperately want a different kind of system, they want choices, they want to be able to exercise their options. But now it’s up to us to ensure that there is democratic control as well.
EduShyster: Let me ask what is essentially the exact same question but using different words. Other than the power to get on a waiting list or *vote with their feet* if they don’t like the charter choice they’ve chosen, what power do parents actually have in your vision? It doesn’t feel like a lot of power to me.
Smarick: I think it’s the ultimate control. We had the illusion of democratic control in places like New York City or Chicago. If you have an elected member of a school board who represents hundreds of thousands of citizens, yes, technically there is democratic control, but how responsive is that system to the needs of families and to neighborhoods? I think that where you have neighborhood charter schools and independent boards and a wide array of options for families, that’s actually the way that you can exercise control.
EduShyster: Since you *went there,* let’s talk about democratic control. In recent elections, voters in both Chicago and Philadelphia basically shouted that they want more say over their schools. Is it just me, or does it seem like if you give voters a vote over whether they want an actual vote vs. the vote with their feet kind of vote, they always seem to vote for the *vote vote*?
Smarick: I think it’s absolutely essential that if we are really going to have community empowerment and sustainable change in cities, that the city as a whole feel like they own their system of schools. What I’m trying to push maybe you, and definitely other people on, is that we can have democratic control but not believe that is synonymous with the elected school board that we’ve had for 100 years. We just assumed that democratic control meant that a city had a single school board and that that school board owns all public schools in the district, makes decisions about all of the contracts, makes decisions about all of the principals, makes decisions about where kids go to school based on these residential zones. That is one form of democratic control. What I’m saying is that we could have a different set of rules that govern these boards so that you don’t give one board all of that authority. I don’t think you can have the kind of elected school board we’ve had for 100 years and simultaneously have community and parental empowerment.
I think it’s absolutely essential that if we are really going to have community empowerment and sustainable change in cities, that the city as a whole feel like they own their system of schools.
EduShyster: This time I am literally going to ask the exact same question again. It’s really hard for me to look at places like Newark, NJ, or Camden, that are operating beneath multiple levels of state control, and see parents being empowered.
Smarick: I totally agree with you. State takeovers of urban districts are sometimes necessary but they absolutely have to be temporary. It has to be a way to decentralize power to give parents more choices. It can’t be something that exists in perpetuity because then what you get are disempowered communities that are even more disempowered. And that’s no way to have these cities thrive in the way we want them to.
EduShyster: The question that I keep coming back to is, if you’re so convinced that you know the choice parents will choose, why not give them the opportunity to choose it?
EduShyster: I’m saying that it’s hard to know what they would choose when they have no choice about the choice.
Smarick: I’m having a hard time understanding what the alternative is. It’s like saying: you can choose your schools or you can have a system where your child was assigned to a persistently underperforming school. We know how that turns out. Parents do everything they can to find schools that work better for their kids. They’ve been showing us that in charter waiting lists and scholarship waiting lists and demanding intra-district choice. I mean millions of families have told you what they believe.
EduShyster: But if it’s so clear that this is the choice that parents would choose, why is there so little parent and community involvement in determining what the choices are going to be?
Smarick: You’re right. I think this is a failure that I and lots of other people who have done this work are guilty of. We’ve had this urgency about changing things and have done too little to go into these places and have long conversations about, say, what does a new school board look like? I mean there still isn’t a local school board (for RSD schools) in New Orleans. Or what does it look like when charters are 75% of the school system? States had to intervene in a lot of places so they did, and I’m trying to get us to a place where it’s not viewed as either the state takes over or we have these schools boards that didn’t work for way too long. There has to be something in between those two things.
We’ve had this urgency about changing things and have done too little to go into these places and have long conversations about, say, what does a new school board look like?
EduShyster: I’m going to pause here briefly because I am exhausted. Also, I want to savor that bit where you say that I’m right, then go on to concede failure… Still savoring… OK—I’m back. I want to move on to the kinds of schools that seem to be key to your vision of the future: the high-performing seats, if you will. There is an authoritarian quality to no-excuses charter schools that makes me wonder about the place of democracy in the urban future. In other words, what kinds of demands are kids who march through their education in straight silent lines going to be prepared to make upon their state?
Smarick: I’m not enamored of that kind of school. But I believe school choice means I don’t get to decide what schools are right for everyone else’s kids. I’m willing to say that other families should have choices over the kinds of schools that are available. I think that there needs to be a diversity of schools so that families can make real choices. But if a family decides that, say, Success Academy is right for them, I think it would be as wrong for me to say they’re wrong as it is for the school district to tell a family that because you live at 123 Main Street you have to attend Kennedy Elementary. We need to empower families and sometimes that means they make decisions that I wouldn’t necessarily agree with. As long as those schools are safe and they’re teaching the kinds of values that we want, we’ve got to empower families to make those choices.
EduShyster: No-excuses charters are rapidly *scaling up* in cities across the country. Part of what concerns me is that no one seems to have any idea what the long-term effect of this kind of schooling is on kids. I’m actually in search of academics who will do this research.
Smarick: That is such an important and interesting question. You could get lots of school reformers, certainly people on the right, to say: if it’s wrong for the government to tell you where you have to go to school based on where you live, it’s no better if you have a system of choice—and I’m using air quotes here—but there are in fact no choices because all of the schools look the same. Choice is only choice if there are options. What’s the Henry Ford line? *You can have any color Ford you want as long as it’s black.*
Choice is only choice if there are options. What’s the Henry Ford line? *You can have any color Ford you want as long as it’s black.*
EduShyster: Let’s dwell here for a moment, shall we? This feels to me to be a major contradiction at the heart of the Smarick vision. That on the one hand, parents are going to be empowered to choose their own choices, but on the other hand, all of the choices will be part of an accountability system that rewards a single definition of success. Am I wrong?
Smarick: That’s where you and I will probably agree and I disagree with a lot of reform folks. I think that we have systems that focus on a narrow set of metrics, inevitably we get schools that respond just to those metrics.
EduShyster: I’m tempted to relinquish things here, as this is turning out even better than I’d hoped. But that would mean disappointing anyone who is still reading this… I have a serious soft spot for a utopian vision, but as any utopienne worth her salt can attest, utopia has a way of never quite arriving. How do you explain to people in, say, Chicago or Philadelphia, who have been on the receiving end of a grand education reform experiment for two decades, that the next iteration of the future will be better than the one that has already arrived?
Smarick: I think that why Chicago and Philadelphia and Baltimore aren’t real reform is that they conceded everything to the way things currently are. They invested all of the power in the old school district that wasn’t working. Rather than truly decentralizing power like Washington DC has done, they stuck with that decision and what we see is toxic politics. We see communities that really aren’t empowered, schools that can’t grow the way they’d like to. I think that one of the saddest narratives from my point of view is that Chicago and Philadelphia had the courage to try reform five or even ten years ahead of other cities and they made a couple decisions that were the wrong ones.
EduShyster: I’m a huge fan of James Scott’s book Seeing Like a State, about why various schemes to improve the human condition have failed. I’ve tried to force everyone I know to read it, but you are the only person who has ever taken me up on my insistent offer. I look at the urban school district of the future and I see what Scott would call a *Prussian forest.* (Note that I am leaving this tantalizingly undefined in hopes that people will rush to get the book).
Smarick: I see the exact opposite. The biggest lesson from Seeing Like a State is that if you get central administrators who have no appreciation for the complexity at the local level, who have no appreciation for the needs of people who live in communities they’re tinkering with, they make these decisions at the central level that inevitably are simple because they need simple solutions to administer from a far away state capital. They end up gutting the heart of what’s happening in these neighborhoods.
EduShyster: Wait—did you mean to describe New Orleans?
Andy Smarick is a partner at Bellwether Education Partners and author of The Urban School System of the Future. He has worked on education policy for the federal government and the state governments of Maryland and New Jersey.
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