Let’s Give Schools the Flexibility They Need to Achieve Real Reform

by Orrin Hatch & Frederick M. Hess

Letting administrators renegotiate union and vendor contracts would make true ground-up restructuring possible.

Education reformers have long endeavored to transform struggling schools. Many of their approaches, often accompanied by buzzwords like “turnaround strategies,” “whole-school reform,” and “school-improvement models,” have failed to deliver much in the way of results. State leaders, superintendents, and principals need more than buzzwords to reinvigorate struggling schools; they need the flexibility to reinvent and restructure without being held hostage by outdated policies and suffering under yesterday’s missteps.

In seeking to revive failing schools, the Obama administration has relied heavily on grant programs, such as School Improvement Grants (SIG) and Race to the Top (RTTT). Under this approach, the federal government provides funding to the 5 percent of schools in a state with the worst test results and encourages them to adopt one of four federally mandated options for fixing them: school closure, restart, transformation, and turnaround.

Unfortunately, the results of these efforts have been pretty dismal. A major evaluation published this spring by the Institute of Education Sciences reported that states prioritized school turnarounds but found it immensely difficult to make them work. While each of the four federally approved models has its merits, none is sufficient to empower educational leaders to make the changes necessary to transform a long-struggling school. It’s past time we gave those leaders the resources and authority they need to make these reforms.

To that end, one of us — Senator Hatch — has worked on an amendment to the Senate’s education-reform bill being considered this week, based on an idea pioneered by the other — Frederick Hess — while director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. It would equip state and school leaders who oversee failing districts and schools to pursue a more effective path to reform: the option to reorganize spending obligations in struggling schools. This amendment will allow school districts with an average of 40 percent schools deemed failing by the state to renegotiate contracts entered into after the date of enactment of this act. School districts receiving Title 1 funds under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and marked as underperforming by their states would be permitted to request relief from contracts with vendors and unions, among others.

Even reform-minded school superintendents are too often constrained by contract provisions and spending arrangements that long predate their leadership.

Currently, much school funding is trapped in a cobweb of unwieldy and complicated vendor contracts and collective-bargaining agreements. Old, automatically renewing contracts with janitorial servicers, transportation vendors, teachers’ unions, and testing companies represent massive locked-in expenditures. Many such contracts contain provisions that can tie the hands of school districts on everything from professional development to staffing to classroom technology. In 2014, for example, Utah school districts, including charters, spent a grand total of $521,245,770 on contracts and services supplied by outside vendors.

It seems foolish to assume that educators can magically transform struggling schools without the power to change any of these fundamental operations. We must instead give state and local leaders the ability to restructure such arrangements and resource allocations in a manner best suited to serve the students in their schools.

Education leaders need such flexibility to enable failing schools to get a fresh start — the same opportunity available to successful charter and pilot schools. Unfortunately, even reform-minded school superintendents are now too often constrained by contract provisions and spending arrangements that long predate their leadership, meaning their schools’ budgets and staffing decisions are largely shaped by forces beyond their control. Rather than insisting that school-turnaround leaders make do with burdensome obligations that often prevent meaningful reform, we should provide them with the chance for a fresh start that can give them a fighting chance to succeed.

While such an approach will only be used selectively, in some cases it may prove a necessary — though insufficient by itself — ingredient in helping education turnarounds work as intended. Federal bureaucrats in Washington are not equipped to tell state and local leaders how to improve struggling schools. But Congress would do well to offer local education leaders the opportunity for a fresh start when it comes to deciding how best to serve students.

Thanks in part to provisions in SIG and RTTT, some states have already taken baby steps on this front. Massachusetts and Illinois, for example, have provided greater flexibility to state and local leaders to opt out of outdated collective-bargaining agreements.

The logic of this proposal prevails in the private sector. Every day, we allow people, small businesses, large corporations, and municipalities the chance to start over by reorganizing their obligations under various bankruptcy procedures. Now is the time to give failing schools, whose ultimate success matters so much more to our nation’s children, a similar chance to wipe the blackboard clean and serve the interests of their students.

— Orrin Hatch is the senior U.S. senator from Utah and a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. Frederick M. Hess is the director of education policy at the American Enterprise Institute.