Will Andy Smarick Join the KIPP Challenge?

My friend Mike Petrilli at the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute recently sent me a post from the Institute’s daily blog called “Chartering the Future” by Andy Smarick. Mike sent it with a note, saying, “you won’t like this.” He’s right, I didn’t like it at all. And yet, if you read to the end, you will see that Andy and I end up in agreeing on one important point.

The post is a summary of Smarick’s new book; he argues that urban school systems are so broken that they should be eliminated and replaced by charters, lots and lots of charters. In a previous article in the conservative journal Education Next, Smarick argued that “turnarounds” are a waste of time because broken schools can’t be fixed, they must be closed, abandoned and replaced by charters. The article was called “The Turnaround Fallacy,” and the subtitle was “Stop trying to fix failing schools. Close them and start fresh.”

I won’t get into an extended exegesis of the works of Mr. Smarick, whom I knew slightly in my final days as a member of the board of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Suffice it to say that his arguments begin with the assumption that the schools and the system are broken, whereas I have concluded that the schools are struggling to educate children who have been harmed by poverty and societal neglect. Their low scores are a symptom of social failure, in my view, more often than they are a grade of school or teacher quality. If poverty is the cause of low academic performance, as it appears to be on every standardized test and in every nation, then we might see better results by reducing poverty than by opening charter schools.

The fact that a small handful of charter schools get different results is not proof that all charter schools can get equally wonderful test scores. Bill Bennett used to say that one example of success was an “existence proof” of what could be done with sufficient determination. But you might just as well say that if one man–or 50–can run a four-minute mile, then we should expect all men and women to run a four-minute mile. After all, there is an existence proof, and now there is more than one. So why can’t everyone do it?

So far as I can tell from Andy Smarick’s resume, he has never been a teacher or worked in a school. He had something to do with starting up a KIPP, but the rest of his resume speaks of his ascendance in the world of policy wonks, rising through the ranks in Republican circles, at the state and federal level. He worked as a legislative assistant to a Republican congressman; he was chief operating officer for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools; he worked for a time in Governor Christie’s Department of Education; he did something in the George W. Bush administration; he worked with Bellwether Education Partners, a D.C. consulting group run by TIME columnist Andy Rotherham. He is now associated with two Beltway conservative think tanks: the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and the American Enterprise Institute.

With his impressive list of credentials, there are two that he does not have: he has never been a teacher in an urban school, and he has no qualifications as a researcher or scholar of education.  He is a policy person through and through. He is, in today’s parlance, a wonk. That’s the sort of person that James Scott of Yale wrote about in his insightful book called Seeing Like a State.

People who “see like a state” always have large ideas about how to re-arrange other people’s lives from 30,000 feet up. They are the sort of people who raze neighborhoods to make way for a highway or redirect rivers to achieve some lofty goal. They don’t care much about the people whose lives they disrupt. That’s not their problem.

Smarick doesn’t like public education. He likes privately managed charter schools getting public money. Given his limited experience, I wonder whether he has ever spent any time in good urban public schools. I doubt it.

Nothing that I have seen from his pen acknowledges that charters experience failure on the same scale as public schools. Nothing acknowledges that urban charters get no different results from public schools unless they somehow manage to minimize the number of students with disabilities and students who are English language learners and to exclude the students with behavioral and academic problems.

If this is the case, then what exactly would be accomplished by dismantling urban public education and handing it over to entrepreneurs?

But let me take a case at hand. On this blog, some weeks ago, I posted “the KIPP challenge.” I said that I was prepared to accept the miracle of KIPP if KIPP would agree to take over an entire troubled urban school system and leave no child behind. Take all the children–the motivated, the unmotivated, the strivers, the indifferent, the failing, the autistic, the homeless, the just-released from incarceration, the blind, the gifted–all of them, like public schools. Show us how you can scale up. Show us how you can work your magic for all children. The response was a howl of outrage. I was asked, how dare I suggest that KIPP “change its mission.”

Well, as I understand Andy Smarick’s latest statement, he joins me in the KIPP challenge. Find one impoverished district that is willing to invite KIPP in, and let’s see how it works out. Take all the children. Open your doors to all. Do it in one place before imposing it on everyone.

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Diane Ravitch

Diane Ravitch is Research Professor of Education at New York University and a historian of education. She serves on the board of the Core Knowledge Foundation, Common Core, the Albert Shanker Institute of the American Federation of Teachers, and Common Good. She is an honorary life trustee of the New...