On Silver Bullets Fixes & Magic Reform Potions

I’ve heard dozens of arguments for and against charter schools. One personal favorite of mine is comparisons of business and public sector reforms to education equivalents. Some reforms, especially when looking at the administrative side of education, can be interchanged easily. How we manage data and central offices are similar no matter what kind of business we’re running.

Other things don’t match up quite as nice however. Sharon Higgins compared Oakland, CA police charters to school charters at The Perimeter Primate. Using language to describe the police situation as education reformers do on education, Sharon attempts to link the failure of the police charters to a failure in school charters.

from The Perimeter Primate

Independently operated providers, mostly private individuals who claimed that they could provide a superior service, were granted charters by a number of cities which gave them control of individual police beats. As a part of the agreement, “charter beat” operators were permitted to have more program flexibility than the traditional police department. They could make additional demands of the citizens who lived in their beats, and of the non-union officers they employed. It was thought that these types of innovations would be good, and that the competition presented by the “charter beats” would stimulate the failing police departments to do a better job.

At the time, Oakland was divided into 60 police beats – geographic parcels staffed with a set of specific police officers. Some beats had higher crime rates than others depending on certain factors in the geographic region, namely a high poverty level. Most law enforcement reformers staunchly believed that high poverty was no excuse for higher crime rates, and that if the police would only try harder, and smarter, those challenges would be overcome.

The “charter beats” used a force of non-unionized security officers. Many were recent top college graduates who were interested in giving two years of service to urban communities. Once they were accepted into an alternative training program, they would attend an intensive, five-week series of classes, after which they would be given a set of equipment, a patrol car, and their assignment. To compensate for the ongoing lack of experience, coaching was provided by a host of paid consultants. As the “charter beats” increased, more and more of the traditional, preexisting beats were closed down. Police officers were laid off and the size of the regular police department shrank. It eventually disappeared, along with the police union. The city’s law enforcement had been transformed into a system free of unions and of many of the previous legal restrictions.

Sharon’s post made for an interesting read, but her analogy doesn’t quite make it. Despite the fact that I have compared teaching to policing in the past, this situation is not the same. Police departments are not meant to compete to fight crime. Recall the autonomous fire fighting companies of the 19th century. Fire brigades would compete for fires. The brigade who put out the fire would get money from insurance companies that protected the building. People weren’t too happy that while their house was burning competing fire companies were arguing over who would put it out.

No one wants to wait in an emergency while police departments argue over who will take the call. The immediacy of policing and it’s direct link to our personal safety set it apart from education. This aspect makes the comparison of the two charter systems problematic, if not impossible.

Let’s give credit where credit is due though. Sharon’s post and argument leads to another point. Oakland police charters fared poorly because they failed to address other things that needed to be reformed as well. Anyone who comes out and says “if all schools were charters things would be stellar” or “merit pay’ll solve it” is short sighted, narrow minded, and something P.T. Barnum claimed was born every minute.

What we need is comprehensive reform. We need to analyze each school and each district, noting what specialized needs aren’t being addressed in each. Blanket reform would be like a surgeon saying that because you have a bad knee he was going to replace your whole lower torso.

I’ll repeat it again, there is no magic reform potion. It isn’t that simple. There is hard serious work to be done. Put you ideologies in your pockets, roll up your sleeves and dig in people.

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