The moderate extremism of relinquishment
Relinquishment is based on three principles: (1) educators should operate schools, (2) families should choose amongst these schools, and (3) government should hold schools accountable for performance and equity.
Outside of these three principles, I hold few ironclad beliefs on education. Yet in conversation, I find that others attribute principles to Relinquishment that I don’t hold. This probably stems from a lack of clear communication on my part, so let me provide additional clarity:
Relinquishment is not anti-union
Relinquishment is a reaction against management, not labor. Admittedly, I disagree with certain policies put forth by unions and their members, but individuals should possess the right to collectively bargain with their employers. Relinquishment only posits that the government should not be a party to the bargain; rather, the bargaining parties should be union and school operator. From here, results will dictate the future of unions. If unionized schools thrive, unions themselves will also thrive. I do understand that, from an organizing standpoint, unionizing decentralized charter schools will be more difficult than signing a singular collective bargaining contract with the district—but I do not believe this issue should trump the more salient issue of academic performance.
Relinquishment assumes equity in access is not the natural state of school systems
People concerned about ensuring that all public school students have equitable access to great schools often suggest that the best solution is to (1) force all kids into one system and (2) have that one operator allocate students to maximize equity. This rarely works. Due to attendance zones, many traditional school districts have highly inequitable enrollment patterns. Yet, I’m also sympathetic to the idea that when charters serve 10–20 percent of a system, these schools may attract more motivated families. In New Orleans, where I work, I’ve witnessed charters serving an increasingly at-risk student population as the traditional system has winnowed. Neither traditional nor charter systems will—on their own—deliver equity.
There is a fix to this: Cities should develop government-managed enrollment systems that regulate non-government school operators. The solution to inequitable enrollment is not to restrict choice. The solution is to create a process that ensures transparency and equity in enrollment, transfers, and expulsions. New Orleans has developed such a system (though it remains a work in progress). Others should follow suit. Government should achieve equity via school regulation, not school operation—in this sense, I believe that equity demands we put some guardrails around choice.
Relinquishment is hesitant to cast its position in historical civil-rights language
Education leaders often state that education reform is the civil-rights issue of our time. Whenever I hear this, I wonder: Who is the oppressor?
Is this a racial conflict? Well, both sides of the reform debate are diverse. And no side has a monopoly on African American support: NAACP, BAEO, Stand for Children—all are African American–led and all hold very different opinions on reform.
Are the wealthy the oppressors? This is unlikely. Most wealthy people in urban areas send their children to private schools but still pay taxes to fund public schools at fairly generous rates that compare well to international averages. The wealthy have not shrugged off their responsibility to fund public schools, and many are giving their own funds to support reform; whether or not one agrees with their strategies, Bill Gates, Eli Broad, and others hardly seem malevolent.
In short, the current education-reform movement, while having significant civil rights implications, is different than previous civil-rights battles. The current battle is one of strategy, not desired outcomes. Everyone wants poor children to succeed. Different groups simply have different ideas on how to achieve this outcome. Perhaps the most telling sign that we’re in a different civil-rights paradigm is the fact that both sides sincerely claim Martin Luther King Jr. as a role model. And, to an extent, both can do so with some legitimacy.
Relinquishment has realistic (but ambitious) aims
Students attending our best charter schools achieve impressive results. The top-tier charter schools in the country often produce SAT scores in the 1400 range and ACT scores in the 19 to 20 range. Students who may have otherwise dropped out of high school are now attending two- and four-year colleges. But, on average, these students are not prepared to excel at more rigorous four-year universities. Additionally, in looking at more rigorous statistical measures of successful charter sectors (experimental and quasi-experimental results in cities such as New Orleans, Boston, Memphis, Indianapolis, Detroit, Newark, Nashville, etc.), we often see the same trends: real positive effects but not academic miracles.
Let me add two caveats.
First, what some claim to be able to do in one generation we may be able to do in two generations. Students who grow up in severe poverty and achieve middle-class (or even lower-middle-class) status will then better prepare their own children for additional educational advancement. Perhaps these children will achieve at the levels some now promise. Second, the above is only based on our current abilities to educate children. My hope is that Relinquishment will greatly accelerate innovation, which will then increase our ability to drive academic gains. I’m not sure how we get from here to there. I just think a Relinquishment-based system will increase the probability that we get there.
Relinquishment as moderate extremism
Relinquishment is extreme in that what it calls for (non-governmental operation of schools, parental choice, and limited but effective regulation) currently only exists in one major city in our country.
But in other respects, Relinquishment is moderate. Relinquishment does not call for an end to unions. It does not aim to abolish government’s involvement in public schooling. It does not predict unearthly results.
All Relinquishment assumes is that empowered educators and families will achieve increased outcomes.
Neerav Kingsland is the CEO of New Schools for New Orleans.