For better schools, raise expectations

Steve Barr, founder of Green Dot Public Schools

TEXT OF COMMENTARY

KAI RYSSDAL: The Democrats have gathered in Denver. They'll be partying and schmoozing and, yes, talking policy for the rest of the week. While the convention's in session, we've asked some prominent Democratic policy types to complain. That is, tell us where they think the party has gone astray on key issues. Today, commentator and education reformer Steve Barr says Democrats are behind the curve on education.


STEVE BARR: Check out any national poll on issues important to Americans, and they'll tell you the same thing: On education, voters trust Democrats more than they do Republicans. And it's been that way for decades.

But my fellow Democrats haven't done much in recent years to earn that trust. Party leaders aren't addressing education in a real way. And when they do, it's usually to condemn No Child Left Behind or to make a vague appeal for better schools. Rarely do Democratic party leaders offer a clear vision for what a 21st century education should look like.

Now, the Dems don't have it easy. There are two warring tribes in their ranks -- teachers unions and school-reform advocates who are wary of teachers unions.

So, let me offer a new progressive vision to my beloved party, so it can challenge these tribes to come together: Community-based, decentralized school districts composed of small schools.

Study after study shows that a smaller school gives a kid the best chance to succeed. A decentralized district would streamline money to school sites, where each school would control its own budget. School leaders, including teachers, would make the hires.

But the key is high expectations. All stakeholders must believe that every kid can learn and can be college and workforce ready. Autonomy is maintained based on student performance. And if the school fails to meet expectations, that local control can be taken away.

This model offers teachers better work conditions, more generous pay, and a say in what goes on in front of them. In exchange, the school asks for accountability. Because, contrary to perception, people want to teach. They just don't want a suckers' bet.

This all seems like common sense, so what's the problem?

Unfortunately, there's a great deal of institutional resistance built into the system. Too many urban school districts have deteriorated into instruments of patronage. And teacher contracts are written in reaction to centralized, outmoded systems.

With a new progressive vision, there will be need for a new unionism. And wouldn't we all love to see every cent of our tax dollars go directly to a small, public school in our neighborhood, with the best paid union teachers who believe in our children as much as we all do?

RYSSDAL: Steve Barr is the founder of Green Dot Public Schools. That's one of the leading charter schools operators here in Los Angeles. He's also a former finance chairman for the Democratic Party.

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