A ‘radical’ reform goes mainstream, (but New York State retreats).
The U.S. is stress-testing Herbert Stein’s law like never before, but maybe the economist’s famous dictum—trends that can’t continue won’t—is being vindicated in education. Witness the support of America’s mayors for “parent trigger,” the public school reform that was denounced as radical only a few years ago but now is spreading across the country.
Over the weekend in Orlando, the U.S. Conference of Mayors unanimously approved a resolution endorsing new rules that give parents the running room to turn around rotten schools. At “persistently failing” institutions, a majority of parents can sign a petition that turns out the administrators and teachers in favor of more competent hires, or dissolves the school, or converts it to a charter. Teachers unions loathe this form of local accountability.
The mayors note that this reform is targeted at the 2,000 or so high schools that count as “dropout factories,” where more than 40% of the freshman class fails to graduate. Most are in poor or minority zip codes where kids and parents have no other options. These 2,000 schools produce—if that’s the word—51% of U.S. dropouts.
The endorsement push was led by Antonio Villaraigosa of Los Angeles—the union bosses are an “unwavering roadblock to reform,” he said—as well as Michael Nutter of Philadelphia and Kevin Johnson of Sacramento, liberals all. Most of the mayors are Democrats. Parent trigger was a California inspiration, instituted in 2010 despite opposition from unions, which are suing to stop its implementation in the cities of Compton and Adelanto. It has since spread to Texas and Louisiana and variants are under consideration in 20 states.
The mayors’ vote of confidence is symbolic, since parent trigger typically requires the approval of state capitols. But it is still politically significant as another sign of how much the education reform debate has changed. Liberal mayors would never have dared to challenge union power even a few years ago, but now they see charter schools, parent trigger and even vouchers as a chance to side with parents against an increasingly unpopular special interest.
Not that Nirvana has arrived, as New York is proving. On Tuesday state officials in Albany announced that they had reached a deal to avoid making teacher evaluations public. Parents will only be allowed to view the performance ratings of their kid’s specific teacher, but not the ratings of her colleagues or those in future grades. In other words, parents can’t use the information to make a better choice if by chance they end up with a lemon. The rest of the public will be allowed access to the information in the aggregate, but not by name.
The double helix of union power and bureaucratic inertia explains why public schools have been immune to reform for so long. The growing consensus behind parent trigger and other reforms shows that while change is slow, at least it is possible.
A version of this article appeared June 21, 2012, on page A16 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Notes From the Education Underground.