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Posted at 3:35 PM ET, 11/ 3/2010

Will new ed policy affect all districts equally?

By Valerie Strauss

Here’s some interesting analysis on the fallout from the midterm elections by Anne Geiger, who writes as the Public Policy Blogger. You can see more of her analysis here.

From Anne Geiger on the fallout from the midterm elections and the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives:

The good news and the bad news.

First, some important data...

As this table and this table show, there are 47.7 million students enrolled in public schools and 14,229 school districts in the U.S. Just over 13% (1,883) enroll 67% of all students (32 million students).

Among this 13% are the school districts of our major cities, such as Washington D.C, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia and Houston. Member districts of the Council of the Great City Schools (I served on the council’s board while on the Orange County (FL) School Board), a member organization of the 65 largest, serve over 7 million students.

Their students are 75% non-white, 60% low-income, 15% English language learners, and 12% special-needs. (Twenty-five of these districts serve over 100,000 students each. Their enrollments total 12% of students overall).

The remaining 12,346 school districts serving the remaining 33% of students (15.7 million students) have enrollments under 5,000. Over 6,000 (about half) of these have enrollments under 800.

I share these numbers because the policy implications of the new political landscape are not going to affect school districts in the same way.

I don’t have a firm number, but most of the 12,346 with enrollments under 5,000 and many of the 1,883 that serve over 5,000 represent a big political force.

They’re fatigued by the punishments and labels of "failure" contained within NCLB. They’re fatigued by the heavy use of standardized tests. They are fatigued by the dominance of the U.S. Department of Education although it provides 8.3% of public education funding.

They’re fatigued by increasing mandates without adequate funding to implement them. They’re fatigued by recent rhetoric from the national media, national business organizations and education reform personalities that paint all schools and all teachers as failing.

Specifically, suburban and municipal school districts of middle to high income enrollments and high-performing, dynamic schools are fatigued by being lumped together with school districts that struggle with issues of high poverty and divisive politics.

Rural school districts, some with tiny or widely dispersed enrollments, are likewise fatigued by education reforms designed more for urban districts and distant policy makers who don’t understand their unique challenges involving teacher recruitment and retention, operational efficiency and adequate funding.

First the good news. (Or some would say, sort of good news.) In the aggregate, these school districts would welcome (and advocate for, in many cases) policies that return more local control, loosen the intense focus on standards and standardized testing to facilitate and fund more whole child learning, add flexibility to accountability measurements, simplify rules and better define adequate funding, and lessen the anxiety over performance pay to allow more collaborative, locally designed models.

As to school choice, incentives, support and flexibility will increase at the federal (and state level) to benefit them, but in these school districts, they will likely emerge more on a local basis instead of being mandated from above or forcefully inserted by outside organizations. Rural school districts will probably welcome any new flexibility and certainty, but would welcome most adequate funding tailored to their unique needs. With more focus on local control, that may now be more likely. (This would be helped if all states used an equitable funding formula for all school districts like they do in Florida .)

(A few caveats and nuances: 1) Political dynamics vary from community to community, city to city, state to state. School choice, in particular, will play out differently according to those dynamics and level of parental support or interest. 2) The role that the business community varies between school districts, too. Some serve more of a supportive role. Some insert themselves into school board politics, operations and policy-making. Some do both. This affects the personality, policies and composition of school districts, too. 3) Perennial controversies surrounding curriculum, school prayer, teaching of evolution, etc. will continue to simmer and boil over from time to time as local control again regains foothold. This very American aspect will continue to have implications to what and how children learn. 4) Importance of diversity varies between districts and isn’t even an issue in the many where most children are not too demographically different. With the 2007 Supreme Court ruling that weakened the legacy of Brown v Board and rise of public desire for "neighborhood schools," the goal to maintain diverse schools will diminish over time. It will be maintained in those districts where parents, school boards and the business community believe in it and have the diverse enrollments to implement it in policy. No mention of diversity by state or national lawmakers indicates it will live on mainly on a local basis.)

Now, the bad news. (Those with vested interests would say good news.)

Those 65 school districts that are members in the Council of the Great City Schools and other urban school districts with significant numbers of students who are low-income, non-English speaking and high-needs, will likely experience something quite different ( or I should say more of the same).

Again, I don’t have firm numbers, but it’s at least the 7 million enrolled in the council's districts plus millions (?) more. These are the districts that have been most deeply affected by the most onerous sanctions of NCLB, most intense occurrence of narrowed curriculum, formulaic teaching and rigid school culture, most intense fragmentation by school choice (charters, school management companies, etc.), most intense reconstitution of local control by eliminating or weakening school boards and instituting mayoral control, most intense scrutiny and criticism by local and national media, and most intense involvement of think tanks, foundations and private education providers to prod, test and experiment with the children in these districts.

Since they are affected by high poverty, lack of cohesive, dependable community support and volatile politics, these districts are most vulnerable to such intrusion. It’s led mainly by maverick politicians who live on challenge and controversy, altruists who genuinely want to serve the underserved and private enterprises that see a path to political gain, social prominence or financial profit. A huge critical mass of these "crusaders" has coalesced over recent years and been well supported by Congress, former President Bush and now President Obama, in policy, funding and the bully pulpit.

They will not want to lose their mission, their power or their network. They have invested too much capital and prestige. And with all of they hype they’ve orchestrated through movies, manifestos, editorials, disaster warnings and the like, they clearly have something to prove.

So, while the majority of school districts may find this new political era as a way to achieve the flexibility that they’ve been yearning for, these urban school districts may see a doubling down to keep things as they are.

If moderates take hold of the policy making on Capitol Hill ... they will not be focused on these urban districts. They will instead focus on the majority of school districts in the vast middle and far reaches that seek significant change.

Chances are, too, they won’t be visibly focused on urban poverty, at least not in a traditional sense. This gives lots of open ground for the education reform coalition to continue defining the problems and designing solutions in these urban school districts in their own way. And if they have the blessing of the president and influence of Secretary Duncan as the Education and Secondary Education Act is reauthorized, these districts can very possibly expect not more flexibility, but more of the same.


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By Valerie Strauss  | November 3, 2010; 3:35 PM ET
Categories:  Congress, Guest Bloggers  | Tags:  arne duncation, bush and nclb, congress, education policy, george bush, midterm elections, nclb, no child left behind, president bush, reauthorization nclb  
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Schools are just political footballs in the U.S. It's so sad.

Posted by: jlp19 | November 3, 2010 6:40 PM | Report abuse

This article is excellent.

Posted by: jlp19 | November 3, 2010 6:41 PM | Report abuse

This is one of the most insightful pieces that I have read on the subject. I teach in the public school system, and this article captures the essence of what I see happening in our schools. Bravo!

Posted by: timothygevans | November 4, 2010 12:50 AM | Report abuse

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