Mr. President: Be the bad guy, start closing schools.
Many fine people, including President Obama, are trying to make public schools better, but I don't see much progress. Cities like New York, reporting impressive achievement gains, seem to have trouble with their data. The results from great charter schools are neutralized by the results from bad ones. New ideas are everywhere, but most are bloodless, hard to understand, difficult to visualize.
Here is one idea that is starkly different: Mr. President, you have to be the Grim Reaper, the Terminator. Get out there and start closing schools that don't work. I know a way you can do it that will win applause from everybody.
The trick here is that I do NOT want you to close regular public schools. There are plenty of them that are doing a terrible job -- too many, actually, for even a president to tackle. As a constitutional scholar, you know you don't have the power to shut them down anyway. That's the job of the states and cities.
But there is now this peculiar kind of public school called a charter school. It uses tax dollars, but is independent of school district rules. There are only 5,000 of them in the country, compared to more than 90,000 regular public schools.
The beautiful part of my plan is that you have been a huge charter school supporter. In your signature speech on school reform, delivered March 10 in Washington, you celebrated charters that gave creative educators "broad leeway to innovate." But you also said "any expansion of charter schools must not result in the spread of mediocrity, but in the advancement of excellence." To do that, you said, we should "close charter schools that aren't working."
There hasn't been much talk about that recommendation since, which is odd because it is perfect for you. Start closing bad charter schools. The teachers union officials, who think of charters -- most of them non-union -- as the enemy, will applaud your squashing those vermin. The pro-charter people will support you too, because they have long argued that the great advantage of charters is that unsuccessful ones can be closed quickly and easily, since they are usually small and the few children attending them can switch to another, better charter, or another regular school.
How are you going to close them? You can't actually walk up and padlock their doors. That federalism thing operates with charters, too. They are supervised by local school boards, universities or special charter boards. But you can make them wish they were never born. Just unleash the creative energies of the U.S. education department. I'm not kidding. They may look like mild-mannered bureaucrats, but some of them have a killer instinct.
You've been to the Ed Department on Maryland Avenue. You know what your friend the education secretary, Arne Duncan, is doing. He is filling the building with bright people full of energy and ideas, to augment the many bright people with energy and ideas who have been working there for some time. Unfortunately, as in many large organizations, even here at The Washington Post, they often get in each other's way. They need something to get them out of the office and into schools. Put some inspection groups together -- you can call them Termination Teams -- and send them on the road to identify the charters that have to go.
Consider it sort of a dark-side version of the department's long standing Blue Ribbon Schools program. Instead of finding the best schools in America, let's single out the worst. Your teams can collect the data, and interview the teachers, parents and students. As outsiders, they can ignore the political deals that sometimes keep bad charters afloat. In the information gathering process, your experts can do everyone a favor by telling us the precise indications of a bad school. Is it the number of boring workbooks in science class? The droning non-stop lectures in history? The reading classes that do the same basic books again and again and again?
Give us the score, Mr. President. The definition of dysfunction your people provide will prove useful, even inspiring, to states and cities that eventually decide to close some regular schools. We will applaud your toughness, your willingness to show that you are not all sweetness and light and wry humor. Once you have identified the schools that need to be terminated, use some of that $4.35 billion you have allocated for the Race to the Top school reforms. Tell the states if they and their authorizers don't start closing bad charters, they won't get as much money. You can call it the Race to the Top while Burying the Dead.
We journalists can help. The detailed stories of dysfunction your teams give us will make great stories. We will editorialize against bad charters. We will blog their worst features. With the money saved from closing those schools, states can fund new charters that work, maybe in the very same buildings, but with different people with different ideas making the decisions.
It's all about taking action, Mr. President. No more commissions. No more legislative agendas. Let's get rid of scholastic cesspools. In the process, the new charters that are born will be fortified by stark memories of what will happen to them -- as what happens to politicians -- if they don't keep their promises.
| December 1, 2009; 5:30 AM ET
Categories: Jay on the Web | Tags: Arne Duncan, Blue Ribbon Schools, Obama the Terminator, Race to the Top, bad schools, charter schools
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