Fifteen years ago, if you somehow had gotten rid of the Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, and Teach For America, you may have squashed much of education reform in its tracks. Education reform was fragile.
I don’t think this remains the case.
Education reform is much less fragile than it used to be. Now, more than ever, it can take hits, learn from mistakes, contain defeats, and accelerate innovations.
Education Reform has Gotten More Local
The rise of local harbor master organizations, coupled with the related increased sophistication of local philanthropic efforts, coupled with the development of local charter school organizations – has led to the decentralization of education reform.
There is no central brain dictating reform strategies; no central mouth leading a national reform cry; no central body delivering reform across the country.
In addition, numerous organizations, such as 50 Can (with their fellowship model), Achievement First (with their charter school accelerator), Teach For America (with their current decentralization efforts), and KIPP (with their fellowship program) – are all advancing the effort to localize reform.
This is not to say large, national organizations cannot add value; rather, it’s only to say that the increasing scope of locally driven efforts makes the movement less fragile as a whole.
Education Reform has Gained More Constituents
Modern education reform was born out of an alliance of policy elites, civil rights organizations, and business elites. This, in and of itself, is a formidable coalition – and it has carried the movement far.
But the rapid growth of the charter sector, which now serves 3 million students, is creating an even more important constituent group: parents.
Or to put it another way: there are now roughly as many students in charter schools as there are teachers in the NEA and AFT.
Given that (unfortunately), teachers unions have often opposed the expansion of charter schools, the increasing number of charter school parents could, eventually, lead to a real power shift.
Implications, Issues, Looking Forward
The power of schools boards and teacher unions has in large part been due to their diffuse nature.
Education reform is increasingly building up a robust set of local, decentralized institutions that should provide long-term staying power.
Though there are some weak spots: education reform is still too heavily finance by philanthropy; over time, it will need to utilize its growing constituency base to provide increased public funding to reform efforts that support the public good.
Additionally, going from a niche role to a systems level role is causing some growing pains, both in terms of mindset and capacity (See: The Times – Are They a Changin’).
But, overall, education reform continues to gain momentum, achieve results, and localize.
This all bodes well for its future.