Fix the Exceptions and Fix the System
by UCLA IDEA
Week of July 9-13, 2012
In the last two weeks, three California municipalities have sought bankruptcy protection; San Bernardino being the latest (San Bernardino Sun). Five schools in bankrupt Stockton lost their Quality Education Investment Act (QEIA) funding for low-performing schools (about $1.74 million) because they didn’t raise test scores enough (EdSource Today). The schools were among 130 such schools statewide. In Michigan, fiscally strapped Muskegon Heights Public Schools, with a 23 percent special ed population, turned over the entire district to a private, for-profit company (NPR, MLive, Detroit Free-Press). Drastic insolvencies and responses to them are hitting communities across California and the nation, and these troubles are starting to look routine (Washington Post, Contra Costa Times ).
How can the world’s wealthiest democracy explain its failure to support its public infrastructure and, in particular, its schools? How do we even raise that question and begin that discussion? Harvard University scholar Jennifer Hochschild, who has written widely about racism in the United States, has suggested that a starting point for inquiry is determining whether a social or policy problem is systemic or an anomaly. The distinction helps understand all sorts of social dilemmas, including how we treat our schools.
If we believe that our state has strong, healthy and equitable institutions (e.g. legal, educational, economic, etc.), then we will think of community and school bankruptcies as anomalies. For example, if a school district has a financial crisis and goes broke, that’s an exception, unique to local conditions—perhaps caused by mismanagement or a natural disaster or a local system that is out of sync with all the other institutions which are strong and vibrant. Understood as anomalies, social ills such as racism or failed school districts don’t reflect broader social problems. The proper approach, in this view, is to cure or pluck out the “failures” as if they are noxious weeds in the midst of a vibrant social landscape. Then all will be well. Find and replace failed schools; cure or remove.
However, the systemic challenges that schools face today can’t be solved by rooting out exceptionally bad cities, school districts, teachers or students. Individuals and communities have their responsibilities, but overall, our school problems are systemic; they are tightly integrated into the entire social fabric.
For example, San Bernardino is facing a $45 million deficit, and the 210,000 population city may not be able to meet its payroll in the immediate future. We can’t understand the educational fate of San Bernardino’s students while ignoring the health of their community. Furthermore, responsibility for San Bernardino’s students isn’t confined to that city’s boundaries; those students “belong” to all Californians. One school superintendent warns that without passing Gov. Brown’s tax initiative in November, “three years from now every school district in California will be upside down” (SI&A Cabinet Report). Passing the initiative buys some time, but eventually Californians must see that they do not have a “San Bernardino problem” or a “Stockton problem;” they have a systemic, California problem.
Passing ballot initiatives along with reorganizing and rescuing cities and schools can be a scattered and non-systemic approach, but these actions can be vastly improved if we can unlock the thinking—the beliefs and attitudes that hold current systems in place. Such beliefs are revealed in the events reported in this week’s news, and we offer some example questions to move our thinking from exceptions to systems:
- Can market-based dynamics such as competition and choice keep schools financially solvent and communities out of bankruptcy?
- Can rewards and punishments, such as withholding funding (e.g., QEIA) prompt schools to teach better and students to learn more?
- Should local citizens lose their right to participate in running their schools when their schools or communities are deep in debt?
- Do for-profit management organizations better serve students, especially districts with high-cost needs associated with special education, poverty and English learners?