I had the great fortune to attend a luncheon last Wednesday hosted by the Center for Education Reform held at the stately National Press Club. The reason that an overflow crowd of about 300 people gathered together was to hear from CER founder and chief executive officer Jeanne Allen about a subject I wrote about a year ago. Last May, I opined that the pace of school reform has stalled in Washington, D.C. Ms. Allen has observed that this is not only true in the nation’s capital but around the entire United States.
For example, Ms. Allen informed the audience that following the release 40 years ago of the Reagan administration’s Nation at Risk study with its devastating findings regarding the condition of educational instruction taking place at American schools there were 36 reform laws passed over the nine years between 1991 and 2001. However, she passionately explained, today one in three third grade students are not proficient in reading, and it appears that no one seems to care. Of course, what she was stating is perfectly obvious. If you have followed this cycle’s Presidential election contests at all you will see that the one area that both the candidates on the right and the left can agree on is that education reform in our public schools is an afterthought.
Ms. Allen and her 23 year old organization desperately want to change this dire situation. To dissect the current environment further, and to make recommendations for improvement, the program proceeded from the CER CEO’s opening remarks to a fascinating panel discussion featuring John Engler, president of the Business Roundtable and former governor of Michigan; Donald Hense, chair, founder, and CEO of Friendship Public Charter School; and David Levin, president and CEO of McGraw-Hill Education. Anytime you have the opportunity to hear my hero Mr. Hense speak he will not disappoint and this was certainly the case five days ago. “We have turned our movement over to people who have not done anything for the last 100 years,” Mr. Hense calmly explained. “The charter authorizer here in D.C. now perceives itself as the school board. They are involved in everything and all that we do is regulated. We have lost ourselves. We [school reformers] thought we were done and so we hugged each other and applauded. Meanwhile the traditional schools have rearmed.” He called for expanded school choice whether that means creating options for parents by nonprofit charter management organizations, for-profit CMO’s, or the use of private school vouchers.
The solution for what ails school improvement from the Center for Education Reform’s vantage point is contained in its manifesto that was released at the session entitled “A Movement at Risk.” It recommends providing greater flexibility in the ability of schools to make decisions for themselves along with the funding to make this a reality, more consumer oriented school choice, and expanded transparency in the information about school performance across the country. Whether these public policy proposals will improve academic performance of students is, of course, difficult to tell at this point, but based upon the energy and commitment from the people in the room sincere efforts at fixing public education reform are about to be rebooted.