Rhode Islanders have a right to be skeptical about ideas coming out of their government, and the “empowerment schools” that Rhode Island’s new education commissioner is promoting are no different. At this point, the only reasonable advice would be not to buy into the idea until there are more details about how it would actually work:
“Why can’t we give the tools to districts that the charters have?” he said. “This would address the demand for the charter sector.”
In a speech before the Senate Committee on Education Thursday night, Wagner fleshed out his vision for public education, one that would give principals much more authority over budgets, hiring, even the school day, allow schools to innovate and give parents much more control over where their children attend school.
Rhode Island, Wagner said, has to look beyond the entrenched debate over the value of charter schools and give every school the opportunity to innovate, whether it’s offering dual language classes, an enhanced arts program or a longer school day. This does not mean that Rhode Island abandons testing or a shared set of high standards, however. It means that the state Department of Education would give “extreme freedom” from many state regulations, much like charter schools.
As I’ve been saying in a number of venues, lately, these fix-the-system education reforms walk the edge between absorbing reform efforts into the education blob and pulling the blob toward actual reforms, and whereas the rights of parents and local communities ought to be the things that help ensure balance, they tend to be considered as an afterthought. Giving principals more authority in their own schools, for example, is a great idea, but only if they still have some accountability to parents and only if it doesn’t erode local taxpayers’ ability to determine what (and how much) they’re willing to support.
Similarly, legislators need to thoroughly consider how empowerment schools will actually be populated. If an elementary school converts, for example, will it still be the local district school for students in that neighborhood, or will those families have to enter a charter-like lottery not only against other families in their city or town, but against students throughout the state? And either way, who decides which option to use? It’s all too easy to lose sight of the distinction between funding education for all students and funding a particular set of government-branded schools.
If anything can be declared definitively about this style of education reform, it’s that we don’t need another proposal constructed of general promises and packaged with buzzwords that leads to another 15 years of helping a handful of children while doing damage to education overall, as well as to representative democracy.