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Posted at 09:06 PM ET, 12/04/2012

Is big disruption good for urban school districts?

My colleague Emma Brown has been looking closely at Chancellor Kaya Henderson’s plans to close one of every six traditional D.C. public schools.

In one piece, she cited activists who raised the possibility that the education system of our nation’s capital might, as a consequence of the downsizing, be split in two: Charter schools would rule the low-income neighborhoods, while regular public schools would thrive only in the affluent areas where achievement rates remain high.

This is not some wild nightmare. Education finance lawyer Mary Levy, a careful and longtime analyst of D.C. schools, said at one meeting: “What we are rapidly approaching is a [public school system] concentrated west of Rock Creek Park and perhaps around Capitol Hill, and a separate charter school system filled by lottery in most of the rest of the city.”

This is upsetting to many D.C. residents and people in the region who work or have lived in the city. But to some reformers, it is a great opportunity, a way to let parent choice energize the schools and give urban children more chances for success.

A leader of this disruption-is-good faction is Andy Smarick, a summa cum laude graduate of the University of Maryland who co-founded a charter school in Annapolis and has worked on education policy issues at the national and state levels. His new book, “The Urban School System of the Future: Applying the Principles and Lessons of Chartering,” explains why breaking urban school systems such as the District’s into pieces and putting them back together might bring progress that other efforts have not achieved.

As I interpret Smarick’s idea, Henderson could keep her title of D.C. schools chancellor but get a different and more powerful assignment. She would sit atop three separate entities, the old D.C. school system, the D.C. charters and a collection of private schools willing to meet certain achievement goals in return for some support. She would not run these schools, but would reward and punish those in charge. She would have the power to start new schools and close old ones.

Henderson would oversee what Smarick calls the five pillars of the new system: expanding and replicating schools proven to be effective, closing ineffective schools, starting promising new schools, ensuring a variety of school types and school authorizers, and making sure families have many choices.

If you don’t like charter schools, you won’t like Smarick’s book. He adheres to the charter advocate’s creed that urban school systems can improve only if they embrace change. By adding good schools and subtracting bad ones with rapidity, “we have the potential to drastically improve the educational opportunities of our nation’s most disadvantaged students,” he writes.

I receive many education books in the mail. I toss most of them out because they are irrelevant or impractical. Smarick’s book was relevant but was losing on practicality grounds until I read Brown’s piece on the District’s bleak future.

If it got that bad, I thought, something as extreme as the Smarick plan could happen. I’m not saying it would have the benefits Smarick predicts, but trying it would be interesting and maybe useful.

New Orleans is already heading in that direction. It became fertile ground for radical reform only because a hurricane removed much of the old regime that would have squashed such changes, as Smarick notes often in his book.

Are D.C. schools so bad they might also resort to a public-charter-private massive realignment? Maybe.

A few other cities that have run out of practical options, such as Detroit, might follow suit. Such places can’t get any worse. They might be tempted by a hurricane of an idea, no matter how much trouble it causes.

By  |  09:06 PM ET, 12/04/2012

 
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