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First He Reinvented Government. Now He Wants to Reinvent Schools.

In his new book, David Osborne argues the best way to fix the education system is to increase charter schools and create a survival-of-the-fittest system.

(David Kidd)
Twenty-five years ago, David Osborne co-authored the bestselling book Reinventing Government, about how governments at all levels could and should transform themselves. It outlined an incredibly ambitious agenda for redefining public-sector management: fostering competition, abandoning bureaucratic processes, measuring outcomes rather than inputs and demanding accountability.

The book had an immediate impact -- both at the federal level, where it became the foundation for Vice President Al Gore’s National Performance Review, and in state capitols and city and county governments across the country.  It forced thousands of elected and career government leaders to rethink their roles. But it also encountered political obstacles as elected officeholders began to rebel against new systems, such as performance-based budgeting, that constricted their policy options. So in the long run, many of the reforms proved to be unsustainable. But given how ambitious the original concept was, one would have to give the reinventing movement high marks for the impact it has had over the past quarter-century.

Now Osborne is back with another ambitious challenge. His latest book, Reinventing America’s Schools, presents as daunting a task as the one 25 years ago.  The theme is much the same: To remain effective, institutions must change with the times. 

The mass educational system we developed during the industrial era served us well, helping to create the world’s largest middle class, and endow its members with sufficient skills to manage a dynamic production-based economy. But the Information Age, combined with societal changes and waves of immigrants from all places, has presented new, considerably more difficult challenges for the system. An analysis of the comparative quality of American schools by the National Conference of State Legislatures released last year did not mince words. “The U.S. workforce, widely acknowledged to be the best educated a half century ago, is now among the least well-educated,” the report said. “At this pace, we will struggle to compete economically against even developing nations, and our children will struggle to find jobs in the global economy.”

But after more than three decades of reform efforts, we’ve only seen meager results in confronting those challenges. What is needed, Osborne claims, is a complete overhaul of existing systems, which he acknowledges will spark “enormous political conflict.” Ironically, the main goal of the first wave of reformers early in the 20th century was to keep politics out of education, so they pushed for teacher security, mass standardization and stronger bureaucracy. “By the 1960s,” Osborne notes, “New York City schools employed more administrators than the entire French education system.”

What Osborne advocates is a significant increase in charter schools in a survival-of-the-fittest system whereby successful schools are expanded and replicated and unsuccessful ones are replaced. The central administration, be it a mayor, a superintendent or elected board, would still steer the system, but now would also award the charters to others to do the educating. A wide variety in the types of charter schools would be tolerated -- even promoted. “More than any other single reform,” Osborne argues, “this model breaks the political stranglehold interest groups have over elected school boards.”

The strongest evidence Osborne presents to support his thesis comes from cities where charters have had a documented positive impact on educational performance. He concentrates most heavily on Denver, New Orleans and Washington, D.C., but throws in some less familiar examples, such as Cleveland, Indianapolis, Memphis, and Camden and Newark, N.J. 

The book is almost tediously well documented and carefully written. Osborne makes it clear that charters have not worked well everywhere, usually because of mistakes made in choosing their overseers and failing to shut down the schools that didn’t make the grade, as was the case in Michigan. There, both the governor and Detroit’s mayor tried to remedy that mistake, but the legislature would not go along.

One might think that Osborne and other charter advocates would be thrilled by the ascendancy of Betsy DeVos as President Trump’s education secretary. Yet the opposite is true. The charter school movement has worked closely with every president since Bill Clinton. But DeVos and the Trump administration are pushing an education agenda with a heavy emphasis on radical privatization using vouchers. Osborne and most others in the charter movement strongly oppose vouchers, first because they provide almost no accountability for private schools, which cannot be closed for poor performance, and second because they would likely contribute to growing inequality. Wealthier parents, as the argument goes, would simply add to the voucher payments to purchase the best education they could afford.

Charter schools are not private. They may come in many different varieties, but they are public and almost all, around 87 percent, are nonprofit. They also serve a fast-growing portion of the school population -- about 3 million students attending 7,000 different schools. And that number is understated because so many of the new innovative schools are not called charters.

A couple of months ago, Osborne embarked on a 24-city tour to promote his views and sell some books. Oddly, DeVos was doing much the same thing, traveling through six states on a “Rethinking Schools” tour. Indeed, it is past time to rethink our schools and make significant course corrections. The charter movement offers some hope, in part because the first returns have been so positive -- even in the most challenging cities in the country.

Peter Harkness, founder and publisher emeritus of GOVERNING, now serves as a co-writer of the Potomac Chronicle column. He launched GOVERNING in 1987 after serving as editor and deputy publisher of the Congressional Quarterly news service. Peter currently also is a senior policy adviser to the Pew Center on the States.
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