Can we trust school districts to deliver?

Harold Kwalwasser

Harold Kwalwasser was the General Counsel of the Los Angeles Unified School District from 2000-2003. Previously, he had served in the Clinton Administration and as a senior staffer in the California State Senate and the United States Congress. He currently writes and consults on education issues. In 2009-10, he visited 40 high performing and transforming school districts to see what is working in American education as part of his research for his book, Renewal, Remaking America's Schools for the 21st Century, which has just been published by Rowman and Littlefield.

The BIG Question: What’s the most important governance issue?

We have spent most of the last three years watching Congress contemplate reauthorizing No Child Left Behind.

That contemplation has involved endless discussions of all sorts of issues and ideologies, but it has missed what may be the most important question in American public education today: Can we trust school districts to deliver the kind of education we want for our kids?

Does trust matter? Absolutely.

There are two indisputable facts that underscore the importance of trust. On the one hand, there are absolutely terrific districts in this country. They are so good and so effective at teaching every child, including minority children and English language learners, that the only sensible answer is to get out of the way and let them do what they are doing. Typical federal and state policy options, like categorical spending restrictions or directives about how to fix failing schools, dictated from afar are more likely a hindrance than a help for these districts. And just in case anyone is checking, I’d put Long Beach, California; Blue Valley, Kansas; and the Aldine Independent School District north of Houston in that category.

But then there are others—far too many others in fact. These districts do a terrible job educating children. Sometimes it is simply that they are indolent and unwilling to extend themselves to meet the stiff challenge of educating every child. Other times, the motives are more sinister. The well-off folks in town see no reason to plow more money or effort into the schools that educate “other folks’” kids. Likely, those local school board elections generate low voter turnouts, and, in any event, simply are not effective at enforcing any accountability for poor performance. There is nothing trustworthy about such districts. Affording them the same level of freedom as good districts is to abdicate community responsibility to the least fortunate among us to an equal shot at a good life.

The challenge for a legislator who sits in Washington or a state capitol is to figure out which is which and what to do about it. For good districts, you want them to figure out how to evaluate teachers or fix failing schools. They know the situation on the ground and the assets on hand to meet the task before them. For bad districts, you need to assert some control. And it is the legislator’s obligation to both her own constituents and to the students in these under-performing enterprises to act.

What to do?

One part of that answer revolves around what makes a “good” district. Is it simply NCLB-like test scores, or is there more to it? I think so. It goes to the question of what we think of our democracy and our own role as citizens within it. The theory of change animating NCLB was that rules written into federal law would drive how to fix schools. That took precedence over relying on local control even though few dispute that “one size fits all” likely has meant that no size fit anyone. So, if we continue to focus on the seemingly second-best strategy of Washington- or Albany-driven change, is that because we really don’t believe democracy—at least for school districts—is alive and well? Or that it can’t work? If so, then we need to re-think some larger, fundamental questions about us because they will dog whatever plans we have for educating our children.

As tough as that question may be, we cannot avoid it. For better or worse, it is the school district, not the national or state governments, that delivers education to this nation’s students. How we handle those districts, in all their variations, is fundamentally important to getting our education policy right in the 21st century.

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