Bellwether partner Andy Smarick has written a new book about urban education and reform. Urban School Systems of the Future is a provocative analysis; Smarick argues not that urban districts have problems, something most people would agree with, but rather that when it comes to urban education policy and practice they are the problem. Drawing on both the history and status quo of urban education and the more recent experience with charter schooling, Smarick picks up the David Osborne, Paul Hill et al. mantle and carries it forward with a call not to just evolve urban districts into portfolio providers of educational services, but rather that a suite of options should replace them. Smarick emphasizes coordination within a specific geography, and his blueprint differs from some ideas in that it retains some centralized functions and isn’t just a call to jettison districts in favor of a marketplace. It’s a call for a mixed marketplace with public oversight and regulation, which is why it will not please either strident pole in the debate about urban education governance.
It’s an easy argument to caricature, of course. Already I’ve seen Smarick accused of being a “profiteer,” which is ironic given how it’s the existing urban governance structure that gives rise to all manner of sweetheart deals for vested interests. Just look at school construction in Los Angeles, for instance. It’s also cheap to say he wants to privatize everything, which isn’t the case either. So far, the criticism seems to come from people who have not yet had a chance to actually read the book, because most of the engagement is with Andy himself not, the argument he presents (which tells you all you need to know about the sorry state of our national education conversation).
For my part I think much of this analysis too is confined to the urban and suburban experience (areas of high population density). Rural schools and school districts, which face a host of challenges, likely require different solutions. They’re left out here and in the education debate more generally. And while I’m sympathetic to giving parents more choices and unsympathetic to the operations, norms, and results of many urban school districts, from where I sit, providing coordinated public services in a specific geography almost invariably leads back to some sort of school district-like arrangement, more than what Andy envisions. Districts can certainly be more effectively organized but I don’t see much of what they do going away, not because of lack of vision but because of the necessity of some functions, as well as the slow arc of change. Still, I’m just giving an overview of a rich argument that Andy presents, and regardless of where you come down the book is worth reading because it will challenge you.
At Bellwether we’ve been asked a few questions about Urban School Systems of the Future. The thoughtful ones want to know how the ideas in it interact with the work we do with some school districts. Less thoughtful is the usual nonsense about privatization, corporations, and so forth that has a lot to do with political fights among adults but almost nothing to do with educating kids.
On the specifics, we do work with school districts, states, and other public entities, and also with charter schools, charter school networks, and various support organizations for school districts. And we’ll continue to. Everyone at Bellwether is proud of the book Andy’s produced, it’s important and provocative. But that doesn’t mean everyone agrees with his argument or conclusions–we have more than 20 professionals on our team and they think for themselves. That’s a strength of the organization. That diversity is what makes Bellwether good at what we do. It’s not a place where everyone has a generally homogenous viewpoint politically or operationally in terms of education policy. Rather, we examine and attack problems from a variety of perspectives. Quality of thinking and analysis rather than ideological rigidity is what makes us effective. Besides, ideological rigidity is not in short supply in our sector these days, so we didn’t see the need to create another organization to foster it when we launched Bellwether three years ago. Bottom line: Smarick’s a smart critic and that adds value to our work solving problems.
And given the scale of the educational challenges that our clients face and that we face as a country we don’t think there is another way to do this work that is as effective as an organization that values diversity of viewpoint. We are pleased to work with a wide array of organizations, from the National Education Association to Stand For Children, and education providers from traditional school districts around the country and state departments of education to leading-edge charter schools like MATCH and CMOs like IDEA and YES. We even work with the recently-maligned Big Bird via Sesame Workshop.
At the same time, we’re a nonprofit for a reason. We have a mission and we’re not just transactional in our operations. We believe this country has a highly-unfair system of schooling today that stacks the deck against the poor. We’re bewildered when we hear arguments about how the system is actually working really well–except for the poor. And we can’t understand how anyone can defend a system where only 8 percent of low-income students finish college by the time they are 24, when the rate for affluent students is about 10 times that. Naturally we don’t agree with our clients on everything, but do we start from that premise as an initial readiness criteria.
A thoughtful read of Andy’s book, whether you agree with it or not, should challenge all of us to examine how we think about addressing this challenge. He’s not wrong about the scale of the problems and the existence of some lessons that are not penetrating the policy debate. Reasonable people can disagree about where those lessons should point us, but that’s a fruitful conversation to have.