Why Public Schools Won’t Improve On Their Own

Published February 1, 1998

Although many public schools are responding to the threat of competition from voucher programs, expanded private scholarship programs, charter schools, and open enrollment, most are effectively insulated from change by structural and political obstacles in the system.

Ironically, the system itself makes it unlikely that efforts from within–either a new alliance of education organizations or teacher union calls to spend voucher funds on public schools–will be successful in improving public schools.

Last September, leaders of twelve education organizations came together to form a new coalition, the Learning First Alliance, “to focus on raising student achievement and boosting support for public schools.” According to Education Week reporter Linda Jacobson, established education organizations are keenly aware of national surveys showing “declining support for public schools.” The Alliance’s members include the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers, the National PTA, and groups representing state education officials and local school boards.

Mirroring the position of its two teacher union members, the Alliance opposes the use of vouchers. AFT president Sandra Feldman claims that vouchers do not stand for reform , or “opportunity scholarships,” but for “a radical abandonment” of public education.

“‘Opportunity scholarships’ sounds terrific,” she said, “until you understand its Orwellian meaning: Give up on public education in America, stop investing in it; siphon off as much of its funding as you can to enable a few ‘deserving poor’ to go to private (mostly religious) schools, and to hell with all the kids left behind.”

But efforts aimed at improving America’s public schools from within are unlikely to be productive, contends education policy analyst Chester E. Finn Jr., because of the system’s effective insulation from change. Since the United States first discovered that its K-12 public schools were mediocre some twenty years ago, reformers have produced a brimming agenda of such proposals as charter schools, low-income scholarships, open enrollment, and privatized school management. Yet, laments Finn in a Policy Review article, “the vast majority of U.S. schoolchildren still attend schools untouched by these ideas.”

Finn, a former assistant U.S. secretary of education under President Ronald Reagan and currently president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, offers five reasons why America’s public schools won’t improve on their own:

  • The public education system does not reward risk-taking among teachers or administrators to pursue authentic reforms, even though faddish innovations such as “constructivist math” and “mixed-ability groupings” are eagerly embraced without evidence of improved academic performance.
  • Oversight from elected officials and the public is resisted by a system largely influenced by self-interested stakeholders: teacher unions, textbook publishers, guidance counselors, and others.
  • The system is unaccountable for failure, with no clear standards or measures of performance. Nearly all performance reports that are issued come from the people who run the system, rather than from independent auditors.
  • Too few of the system’s resources are spent in the classroom. On average, less than half of the public school budget is devoted to “regular instruction” costs.
  • Consumers of education are no match for the system, with no organization to rival the teacher unions or textbook publishers.

Nevertheless, says Finn, “The honeymoon’s over.” Americans increasingly believe that public schools do a poor job of providing safety, discipline, basic academic skills, and character development. “[T]he schools have a window of opportunity to regain public support,” the late Albert Shanker warned his AFT union members. “If that is ignored we will see the collapse of the system.”

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].