It seems pretty indisputable that whatever one thinks of charter schools, they do cause some changes in school districts where they’re present in any significant number. It’s a legitimate question whether those changes actually get to the level of teaching and learning, but as the dance Washington D.C. Superintendent Janey is doing illustrates, they do shake things up. You could argue, of course, that charters are merely present in large numbers in places where things are really screwed up and so that, not the charters, causes changes. But I think the evidence runs the other way.
In any event, I was thinking about all that reading Janey’s remarks and Mike Casserly’s interesting op-ed in Sunday’s WaPo. Casserly is exactly right that governance changes alone don’t solve anything. Paul Hill made that point in greater depth in this paper a few years back. But where I think Mike gets it wrong, or doesn’t engage enough, is the question of the best way to get to alignment and clarity in a place like D.C. I think the notion that consolidating power and accountability and reworking the system that way, with that leverage point, rather than trying to do it through a demonstrably dysfunctional governance arrangement is a very plausible theory of action. And, since the process that puts in place a mayoral takeover, the option on the table now, has to be democratic at some level — mayoral election, state legislature, etc…I don’t see it as illegitimate. Likewise, it doesn’t have to be permanent, either. Further, in this case, as Mike points out, the redundancy in education governance in Washington is almost comical. D.C. could do a lot worse than look to Hawaii for some ideas on having a unified state/school district structure since there is only one school district in Washington in the first place. So Mike’s right about the core issues, but I’m not sure the process question, how to get there, is nearly as encouraging as he makes it out to be. In other words, I don’t have much confidence in the current arrangements in D.C. to bring about the changes, even with the pressure of the growing market share of charters.
Update: Sara Mead, who knows much more about D.C.’s education scene than most, makes some good points about going the Hawaii route and I should have been clearer. I’m not saying that D.C. should adopt the HI model whole hog. Rather, I’m merely saying that there is a lot of redundancy and even considering the pluralism around charter schools and the dual responsibilities of being a state and a school district, there are ways to structure governance that are a lot more streamlined, aligned, and effective than the system now and HI shows that.