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Recovery Schools Can Break the Education Monopoly

n most economic sectors in the United States monopolistic enterprises are either illegal, restricted, or tolerated out of necessity.

The reasons we choose to avoid them are multifold: They reduce innovation, prevent choice, raise prices, and lead to lower productivity. Yet, when it comes to our nation’s most important endeavor – the education of our children – we grant near monopolistic power to local school boards that preach reform but invariably fall prey to a “Governance Trap.”

The “Governance Trap” is as follows: First, a “reform” school board is elected because everyone agrees the schools are failing children. Next, the school board hires a superintendent who agrees to come in and “fix” the system by  improving dysfunctional labor relations, increasing the performance of a recalcitrant bureaucracy, and managing a communications effort with a  frustrated public. In most cases, minor improvements occur. In rare cases, modest improvements occur.

Regardless, the progress is slow enough that a new “reform” school board is eventually elected, the previous superintendent is fired, and a new superintendent search begins. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

On average this process of superintendent replacement takes 3.64 years – up from 2.33 years in 1999.

Fortunately, there is a way out of the trap.

New Orleans has undergone one of the greatest educational turnarounds in our nation’s recent history. Through the first Recovery School District (RSD) in the nation, the percentage of students attending failing schools there has been reduced from 78% to 40%.

Structurally speaking, an RSD is a statewide school district that is charged with turning around a state’s failing schools. It is generally situated within a state department of education and is led by its own superintendent, who usually reports directly to the state superintendent. Practically speaking, a RSD is a vehicle whereby a state can inject entrepreneurship, innovation, and new human capital into a stagnant, monopolistic, local education system.

The RSDs need not operate schools itself. They can utilize charter schools to overhaul individual schools as well break apart underperforming school systems.

The RSD itself will often require enabling legislation.

In Wisconsin, where the Walker recall makes clear that education reform is a divisive issue, a coalition of willing legislators may be difficult to come by. However, RSD’s have now been created in both Blue (Michigan) and Red (Louisiana and Tennessee) states. And the idea of replacing failing schools with charters schools is supported by both parties. In Wisconsin, it will be important to align a coalition that includes: the Governor, State Superintendent, Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, and ideally legislators who represent the Milwaukee area.

The RSD’s mandate should be clearly defined by a high-quality state accountability system. For example, in Tennessee the RSD has jurisdiction over the bottom 5 percent of schools in the state. In many states, even such a narrow mandate will provide an initial jurisdiction of over a hundred schools, which could make for over a decade of work. It’s important that all schools in the RSD must also be fully funded with money following the child and outside of any local collective bargaining agreements.

There are often extreme pressures on quick growth. Governors and state superintendents will want results quickly and demand full district turnaround. Ignore them. In Milwaukee, this would mean launching 6-12 schools a year at the outset and increasing this rate as the market matures.

At the same time, the RSD must close or transform all schools in its portfolio that do not meet performance targets – even if these schools are marginally better than what exited before.

Our antiquated governance structures are not fit to spur on the innovation necessary to increase the effectiveness of our schools. Yet, given our current power structures, government itself must initiate this transition to relinquish control back to educators and parents – and RSDs are amongst the most powerful tools available.

Neerav Kingsland is Chief Executive Officer at New Schools for New Orleans. He wrote about the Recovery School District Model for the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute’s “Pathway to Success for Milwaukee Schools” project.

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