Dead Enders? You Don’t Have To Go To Iraq To See ‘Em!

Andrew Sullivan says go with the oil spot strategy on education policy –and on gay marriage, too. Mickey Kaus, however, sees a quagmire:

I’m not sure the oil spot strategy works that well when you are confronting geographically pervasive, deeply entrenched bureaucratic interests, as opposed to mere armed insurgents.

Mickey cites Milwaukee’s voucher program, Saturn, and welfare reform as three examples of oil spots that failed to spread. Not sure we’ve had a real oil spot in education yet, seems like more droplets. While Milwaukee’s program shows how one foundation, in that case Bradley, can change the policy landscape it’s not a great example of a real oil spot strategy because it was one marginal reform (and has produced mixed results). In the Krepinevich example, Milwaukee would be like going to Fallujah and just fixing the water or power while ignoring all the other issues.

(It’s also worth noting that since Milwaukee there has been a landmark SCOTUS ruling on vouchers and programs legislated in 5 other cities and states. Considering the political opposition that seems noteworthy. Eduwonk thinks that regardless of the problems Milwaukee was a pretty big win for the voucher crowd).

In education, a real oil spot effort would have to be comprehensive, involving governance, delivery, and human capacity. Fortunately, in the social entrepreneurial sector there is plenty of talent that could be brought to bear. As a rule of thumb, anything touched by New Schools Venture Fund is a pretty good bet though there are plenty of others like KIPP. And, there are plenty of folks in the traditional system who would jump at the chance to do something aggressive and bold.

Mickey makes a great point about welfare reform but more people are touched by education than welfare so (hopefully) the political incentives are different. What’s similar is that with welfare it took a consensus that different was needed and better was really possible to force action. In education there is still a substantial industry focused on all the reasons schools can’t be expected to succeed. The media abets this because they generally do such a poor job of publicizing emerging education oil spots where they do exist — it’s just easier to write about the tiresome debate about NCLB or NEA and Soros funded “grassroots” groups. For instance Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson (D) is wildly popular in no small part because he’s opening good public schools in the city over the objections of the usual suspects there. Yet you’d be hard pressed to find a dozen top national reporters who know about it. Oil spots won’t spread all by themselves will they?

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