Getting Advocates & Journalists Out of the Small Stone Box

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In case you hadn’t noticed, most of today’s education debate takes place inside a very small, seemingly unchangeable stone box. 

As an unfortunate result, much of the coverage of education issues ends up focusing on the same things. 

But there are a few examples of advocates thinking big, going at fundamental problems that aren’t just workarounds to the current situation, and there are also a few journalists and outlets whose work reminds us of the school system constraints we take for granted.

The boundaries of the small stone box are these:

*States have primary responsibility for educating school-age children.

*Local school districts – 15,000 of them last time I looked it up – have direct control.

*Federal authority over education is limited to situations in which it provides funding (ie, ESEA’s Title I funding for schools with low-income students) or in very special cases (such as students with disabilities) when Congress and the courts have given parents a right of action against schools or districts that don’t provide adequate services.

*Sweeping civil rights-era consent decrees that once shaped district systems have faded into oblivion or been formally scrapped.

These are some of the many reasons that we have schools that are so inequitable within the same school districts, so much inequality among different local school districts, and so many variations – good and bad – among states.

One result is that, in many states school spending remains, as David Sciarra, the executive director of the Education Law Center and co-author of a recent report on school funding recently described it, “unfair, irrational, and unconnected to the resources” kids need, ”

For these reasons, debate – and media coverage – of education issues tends to focus on approaches and ideas that are in many instances remarkably and obviously too small and confined given the size of the issues that need to be addressed: Teach For America. Charter schools. Education technology. Teacher tenure. Mayoral control.

But at the same time it’s increasingly clear in areas outside of education that scenarios, legal precedents, and social views once thought to be unchangeable turn out not to be as permanent as all that. Once banned or extremely limited in most places, gambling, legalized marijuana, and gay marriage have all become increasingly, suddenly more common. So too have unlimited campaign contributions to so-called Super PACs.  Once considered unstoppable and inevitable, teen pregnancy and crack addiction rates are down – as is use of cars.

Things can change — quickly, if not suddenly.

So, what if any of the inalterable, non-discussable fixtures in education could possibly become suddenly, dramatically altered? 

In 2008, Matt Miller proposed ending local control of schools in an Atlantic Magazine article (First, Kill All the School Boards). He admitted that reducing the over-emphasis on local control “goes against every cultural tradition we have, save the one that matters most: our capacity to renew ourselves to meet new challenges.”

In 2012, former NYC chancellor Joel Klein (and Michelle Rhee, and Warren Buffett) half-jokingly floated the idea of “banning” private schools and assigning children to schools randomly (rather than by neighborhood or test score). I was annoyed at this spread of this “thought experiment” at the time and it still seems legally and politically unworkable but it expands the mind, suggesting other, possibly more achievable changes. It’s apparently been discussed in other countries.

The most recent example I’ve come across is the notion of undoing the 1973 Rodriguez case that has seemed to have blocked progress on school funding issues for over 40 years now.

Recently, civil rights leader Wade Henderson described the law as “a triumph of states’ rights over human rights.” Educator and activist Sam Chaltain wrote not too long ago that Rodriguez was arguably as important as the 1954 Brown decision may be and called for a 28th Amendment to the Constitution guaranteeing “an equal opportunity to learn.” 

Another way to go would be for someone to start suing states based on their failure to achieve reasonable student proficiency percentages under the new Common Core assessments.  “All of a sudden the standards and test results become something that state courts can refer to as a reasonable representation of states’ Constitutional requirements,” according to school funding expert Bruce Baker (who’s not particularly optimistic about this happening or working out well).

The point is simple: There are elements to the current education system that can seem so permanent, so intractable as to make them seem not work talking about — or writing about. But then folks like Nikole Hannah-Jones (formerly of ProPublica, now headed to the New York Times) or Ta-Nehesi Coates of The Atlantic come along and remind us powerfully of things like resegration of schools in the South and the policy decisions that created the American ghetto. I’d love for more education reporters to take on these bigger topics — not necessarily in longform — by asking the people they’re interviewing why things are the way they are and exploring ways that things might be different at a much larger scale than is likely to come from a new app or governance change.

Image via Wikipedia.

Alexander Russo

Alexander Russo is a freelance education writer who has created several long-running blogs such as the national news site This Week In Education, District 299 (about Chicago schools), and LA School Report. He can be reached on Twitter at @alexanderrusso, on Facebook, or directly at alexanderrusso@gmail.com.