Empowering Principals the Key to Improving Education

Published February 1, 1998

Nina Shokraii, The Heritage Foundation’s leading education policy analyst, is School Reform News‘ newest contributing editor. Before joining Heritage last year, Shokraii was director of outreach for the Institute for Justice, where for two-and-a-half years she worked closely with parents involved in the Institute’s school choice lawsuits in Milwaukee and Cleveland. It was her Policy Review article that drew attention to growing African-American support for school choice.

School choice first captured Shokraii’s interest during her earlier association with Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, where she worked to bring national attention to California’s voucher initiative, Proposition 174. Subsequently, she worked on school choice legislation in Arizona and in Jersey City before teaming up with Clint Bolick at the Institute for Justice. Recently, Shokraii spoke with School Reform News‘ managing editor, George Clowes.

Clowes: What is the focus of your current research at The Heritage Foundation?

Shokraii: I look at federal education programs and policies. So far, I’ve focused on school choice in Washington, DC, and on Education Savings Accounts, but this year I’ll be taking a closer look at charter schools and teacher training and certification.

None of the measures being considered on the Hill right now addresses the problems with our current system of teacher training. Teacher training colleges are not attracting the best and the brightest, they’re not training the teachers well, and the certificate they give really doesn’t mean anything. There’s this notion out there that parents want certified teachers, which may very well be true, but the best students in the country are in private schools with teachers who don’t have any certification. My focus will be to discourage the federal government and state governments from pouring more money into teacher colleges.

Clowes: What role should the federal government play in education?

Shokraii: Minimal. I would like to see no federal involvement at all, except for Washington DC, where the federal government actually has a role to play.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress, which is the test they administer randomly in different states every year, is a good example of something that ought to be done at the national level–though ideally, I would like the private sector to do it. If we’re going to do anything at the federal level it should be very minimal, and it should focus primarily on researching effective ways to do things. It should not be promoting Title I, Head Start, IDEA, and the myriad reforms that are currently being promoted and funded at the federal level.

Clowes: What do you consider to have been the most promising development for better schools during the past year, either at the federal or at the state level?

Shokraii: The growth of the charter school movement. By that I mean focusing the attention on giving more power and autonomy and cash to the principals.

If I were to propose one reform idea that will work, aside from giving parents vouchers, I think it would be to empower principals–to give them more authority to hire and fire teachers, and to hold them accountable for results. The charter school movement does that. Even though the parent gets to choose the charter school, the money is going to the principals.

I think charter schools really prove the point that public policy outfits like The Brookings Institution have argued for a long time, which is that empowering principals is the key to improving education.

Clowes: What about the most important change at the federal level?

Shokraii: There’s more emphasis on promoting school choice instead of just pouring money into failed education programs such as Title I and bilingual education–which, by the way, got more funding anyway!

When I worked on the Hill six or seven years ago, there was hardly ever talk of school choice. I remember Representative Armey from Texas once brought up a school choice amendment and it barely got sixty votes. Now, you are not only certain that you can get all the Republicans on board–Democrats like Floyd Flake, Joe Lieberman, and others also support school choice. Had you told me a few years ago that we would ever have the opportunity to talk about charter schools in a bipartisan fashion at the federal level, I would have laughed. But today, members on both sides of the aisle are supportive of charter schools.

Now, I personally don’t like the concept of addicting charter schools to federal funding, but the fact that Congress wants to promote this reform signifies the power and the merits of the choice movement.

Clowes: Have these changes at the federal level affected what’s happening at the state level?

Shokraii: I think the fact that public opinion puts education first and foremost has had more of an effect on the way governors and Washington view education. Now, the extra attention that Members of Congress are giving to school choice is healthy for the movement. I think it’s going to encourage a lot of governors to come forth and endorse school choice, and state legislatures will take it more seriously.

Clowes: What areas are likely to receive most attention at the federal level in 1998?

Shokraii: Teacher training and certification is the flavor of the season because of the Higher Education Reauthorization Act, which is coming up this spring. Also, Senator Coverdell is going to reintroduce an education package that likely will include A+ Education Savings Accounts, money for school choice demonstration projects, and block grants, similar to last year’s Gorton amendment.

Of course, Representative Armey will continue his push for school choice in DC. Since the bill has already passed the Senate, the goal at this stage is to garner more Democratic votes and make it extremely difficult for the President to say “no” to vouchers for the District. That should come up in the spring.

Clowes: In addition to charter schools, what do you consider the major developments in school choice at the state level?

Shokraii: To me, the main development in 1997 was the semi-victory in Minnesota, which allowed for the expansion of an existing tax deduction and the creation of a tax credit for parents to take off their expenses for educational purposes. Even though the tax credit and deduction do not apply to the cost of sending a child to a private school, I think the Minnesota program will pave the way for expansion to include private schools in the near future. Taking these reforms piecemeal and doing a bit at a time will make people a little bit more comfortable with the way they work and the benefits they provide.

Another reform to keep an eye on this year is the bilingual education initiative in California, which started in 1997. The passage of this initiative–which I am certain will pass–will be a very significant blow to the bilingual education establishment. By the way, a lot of Hispanics already are interested in school choice and charter schools. Fifteen of the National Council of La Raza’s local affiliates are opening charter schools, and a few of them, like the one in Milwaukee, support vouchers.

Clowes: What do you see as the most promising avenue for achieving real education reform at the state and local level?

Shokraii: Continue the push for charter schools. The opposition is beginning to notice how powerful the Arizona law is, and I think they’re going to start fighting it a lot more than they have in the past. There’s going to be a move to roll back some of the successful laws, by giving more publicity to bad charter schools. Last year, for instance, on Capitol Hill, when Representatives Riggs of California and Roemer of Indiana introduced legislation to channel federal funds only to states with good charter school laws, the teachers’ unions were the key opponents.

Under the Riggs-Roemer proposal, states would get preference for increased charter school funding only if their laws met certain criteria–no cap on the number of charter schools, more legal autonomy for the principal, and a mechanism to measure charter school success. The way I saw the unions fight something that reasonable is a real sign that opponents are beginning to mobilize their efforts against charter schools.

Tax credits and deductions are other promising approaches to reform that I think will be enacted in a number of states. For instance, the new Mackinac Center plan for a universal tuition tax credit has a lot of potential for passage in Michigan, and it’s something that I believe would be easy to replicate in other states. So Michigan is one state to watch. Illinois, of course, passed a tuition tax credit bill, but Governor Edgar rejected it. The governor of New Mexico is interested in school choice, and Texas is another state to watch.

Clowes: What about changes in school governance?

Shokraii: I would like to see more of the kind of reform that happened in Chicago with Mayor Daley.

The idea of shifting power and accountability from school boards to mayors is an interesting trend to look into. Until recently, local school boards have had the power to do as they wish, and to suddenly centralize that power is a new concept. Washington, DC, has done it, as have Boston, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. But if you look at the success of Paul Vallas and Mayor Daley and what they did in Chicago, and compare it to Governor Menino and his appointee to fix the schools in Boston, you can certainly see how the Chicago plan is definitely the winner. We need to study why and how it is exactly that it worked in a place like Chicago.

Another important feature of the reform in Chicago was that of rolling back the concept of social promotion. This is something that I’d like to see developed further because, to me, social promotion is the single strongest reason why minorities need affirmative action later on in life–the fact that they were cheated out of getting a good education.