I Want to Put a Great Big Asterisk on a Compelling Jay Greene Argument

This week one of my favorite researchers and thought leaders in the world of K-12 education, Dr. Jay Greene, produced an insightful blog essay titled “Fix Schools by Not Fixing Schools.” His argument isn’t as odd as the title makes it sound:

I understand that urging reformers to focus on fixing traditional schools by not fixing traditional schools sounds like abandoning the millions of children who remain in those schools, but that is simply not the case. The best hope for improving the situation of those children in traditional public schools is by expanding access to alternatives and enriching out-of-school experiences. If we succeed in expanding access to quality alternatives, more and more of those children will benefit by being able to take advantage of those alternatives. In addition, traditional public schools may be more willing and able to adopt reforms that are appropriate for their circumstances as they learn about what alternative providers are doing and feel some pressure to take steps to attract and retain their students.

Greene offers several reasons why he believes imposing reforms on traditional public schools is not a productive approach. I certainly get what he is saying. And some of his points I even accept.

Yet I think his argument doesn’t fully hold water in Colorado. Greene makes the case that the reform effort inevitably leads to centralizing K-12 power. But here in the beautiful Centennial State, we’ve got strong local school board control provisions. Not to mention the most interesting school district in America — Douglas County — which has used its local control to decentralize power and authority, while promoting innovation.

Here’s the kicker: Douglas County launched the nation’s first district-created private school choice program back in 2011. In other words, the forward-thinking school board has worked to fix the schools both by fixing them AND by not fixing them. The two aren’t mutually exclusive strategies.

And as the Colorado Supreme Court hopefully upholds the favorable ruling in the Douglas County school choice case next year, our state well may see a number of districts opting for the “And” instead of the “Or.” In the meantime, my Education Policy Center friends continue to educate willing local school board members about the challenges and opportunities of promising or successful local innovations, while also touting the ultimate power of parental choice.

When all is said and done, it might even mean a great big asterisk next to an otherwise compelling Jay Greene argument.