- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 14, 2004

Study schools long enough and one fundamental question emerges: Why can’t they change? Why can’t school bureaucracies become leaner? Why can’t students do better in school? Why can’t teachers become more productive? Why can’t there be more variety in public education, either through school choice or charter schools?

Talk to a member of the education establishment — a professor of education, a union leader, a school superintendent — and they’re likely to say that schools are “underfunded” and to assure you that more money will solve all the problems of the classroom. They also might argue that schools are a “unique” corporate culture, which outsiders unversed in educational jargon will be unable to understand.

In Common Sense School Reform (Palgrave Macmillan, $26.95, 220 pages), Frederick M. Hess argues that people troubled by the state of classrooms ought to use common sense and good judgment. If they do, he believes, they’ll see that schools should be reformed in many substantial ways.

Mr. Hess, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, maintains that the single most productive reform schools can enact is to give principals more authority to hire and fire teachers. The problem of getting rid of incompetent younger teachers, as well as burned-out older teachers grimly hanging on until their pensions vest, are well known.

But just as troubling are the problems of hiring. Most schools routinely reject teachers who know a great deal about a given subject, but who lack a degree from a school of education. Schools also make it arbitrarily difficult to get job application forms, and don’t tell new teachers they’re going to be hired until a week before school starts, leading to chaos, since principals don’t know how many teachers they will have or who they are.

What would “common-sense schools” look like? They’d be places where central offices would be reduced dramatically; where there would be more choice; where teachers and principals would be rewarded for competence and punished for failure; and where school officials would be held accountable if children aren’t learning in the classroom.

Many readers won’t agree with all of Mr. Hess’ conclusions. But he is a forceful and effective writer whose views challenge the education establishment. A parent or teacher who wants to know why our schools are in such bad shape should find “Common Sense School Reform” an excellent guide to the problems that American education faces today.

• • •

As top-down, command-and-control bureaucracies, American schools suffer from many problems. In Battling Corruption in America’s Public Schools (Northeastern University Press, $32.50, 195 pages), Lydia G. Segal shows how rule-laden central offices have ensured that public schools are rife with waste and fraud.

The author, a public administration professor at the City University of New York, studies Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City public school systems. These institutions are huge; the only organization that feeds more people than the New York City school system is the U.S. Army. And all three districts suffer from the same vicious circle.

To prevent fraud, school bureaucrats create more and more rules, forcing criminals to come up with ever more ingenious schemes. But all the rules discourage legitimate contractors who are forced to wait months or years to get paid, and frustrate principals and teachers, also forced to wait to obtain essential school supplies.

The solution, the author argues, is to decentralize — but in the right way. An illustrative example of bad school decentralization is provided by New York City school custodians. In 1856, these custodians were given control over budgets, under the theory that if they were thrifty, they could earn more money. But the result was that schools under custodians have become entrenched fiefdoms, and the custodians’ control over heat, light, and locks ensures that they are largely unchecked.

One New York City school custodian, caught spending his days on corporate jets, said that his bosses shouldn’t complain because he was reachable by beeper. Another had no problem allowing a subordinate to store his gun collection on school property.

Far better, the author argues, to give principals the power over their own school budgets. Having many small pots of money in a school system, she claims, is a far better protection against fraud than assuming that a large budget can be guarded by red tape. She also praises the Houston school system, which, under the leadership of Rod Paige (now secretary of education), reformed its procurement practices to pay vendors more quickly.

“Battling Corruption in America’s Public Schools” persuasively shows that the long-standing procurement practices of large public school systems need to be dramatically transformed if waste, fraud and abuse are to be reduced.

• • •

One of the few areas where Washington, D.C.’s public schools lead the nation is in the strength and diversity of its charter schools. There’s certainly room for a good book on how the District’s charter schools developed and how they can be further improved. Unfortunately, Kevin P. Chavous, in Serving Our Children: Charter Schools and the Reform of American Public Education (Capital Books, $22.95, 155 pages), has failed to write it.

A book about Washington’s charters should address such questions as how the charter program got started, what obstacles it had to overcome, and how the school system rewards effective charters and gets rid of bad ones.

Mr. Chavous, a member of the D.C. Council, ignores most of these questions. He does conduct interviews with some principals of charters, but he is a poor interviewer and we learn little about these schools.

Moreover, Mr. Chavous devotes far too much space to his proposals for American education reform, which are neither innovative nor interesting. There’s a good opportunity for an investigative journalist to write a book on Washington charter schools. But “Serving Our Children” is not recommended.

Martin Morse Wooster is the author of “Angry Classrooms, Vacant Minds.”

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