At Issue

Amalia Betanzos, Bruce Cooper, John Elwell, Colman Genn, Lawrence Mone, Lorraine Monroe, Diana Nelson and Steven Philips
Learning Zones—Breaking Up Educational Gridlock
Spring 1994
  • Amalia Betanzos is founder of the Wildcat Academy, a public school for students who have been suspended from other schools in the New York City school system.
  • Bruce Cooper is a professor at Fordham University’s Graduate School of Education.
  • Colman Genn is a senior fellow at the Center for Educational Innovation and a former superintendent of Community School District 27.
  • John Elwell is director of the Center for Educational Innovation and former director of alternative schools for Community School District Three on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
  • Larry Mone is managing editor of City Journal.
  • Diana Nelson is co-chairman of the Chicago Learning Zone Advisory Committee and senior policy advisor for Designs for Change, a school reform and advocacy organization.
  • Lorraine Monroe is founder and principal of the Frederick Douglass Academy, a college preparatory school in Harlem.
  • Steven Philips is superintendent of alternative high schools and programs for the New York City Board of Education.

Successful public school principals and teachers complain that their biggest obstacle in creating good schools is constricting and time-consuming regulations emanating from the central bureaucracy. Could the concept of enterprise zones—originally conceived as a way to encourage economic activity in inner cities by freeing them from stifling regulation—be applied to education? An experiment of this kind is just getting underway in Chicago, where a state commission is investigating the possibility of creating “learning zones” in which schools would be free of many of the central board’s regulations.

City Journal invited a panel of distinguished public school educators, many of whom have created successful schools, to discuss the concept and to enumerate what the most important elements of an educational enterprise zone would be.

LARRY MONE: We are fortunate to have Diana Nelson, co-chairperson of the Chicago Learning Zone Advisory Committee. I would like Diana to begin our discussion with a few remarks about what is happening in Chicago.

DIANA NELSON: Governor Jim Edgar announced a year ago in his state of the state message that he would be appointing an advisory committee to study the idea of learning zones. The committee has now had four working sessions to establish the basic elements of a learning zone. We have heard presentations by principals and teachers, some of whom have created alternative schools in Chicago, who have described in detail the difficulties of working with a large, unresponsive bureaucracy.

Schools in the zones would be free from having to fill out time-consuming forms and reports for the central office, from certain state regulations—for example, those mandating the number of minutes a day a subject must be taught—and from certain teacher contract provisions, such as those regarding the structure of the school day. In exchange, they would have to make a commitment to very specific improvements in student performance. That is the tradeoff: freedom from rules and regulations in exchange for accountability.

Under the recommendations of the committee, a majority of a school’s local council and staff will have to vote to become part of a learning zone, and the school will have to apply by submitting a proposal describing its goals. Both groups of schools and individual schools will be able to apply for learning zone designation, but preference will be given to those applying in groups. We already have about 30 clusters of schools in Chicago; about half are geographically contiguous schools and half are clustered on the basis of a similar educational philosophy or curriculum.

I should explain that Chicago has a foundation for reform that may not exist in other cities. The Chicago School Reform Act, passed in 1988, created autonomous local school councils. The councils consist of a majority of six parents, two community representatives, two teachers, the school principal, and, in the high schools, a student representative. They have the power to choose the principal, develop school improvement plans, and decide how discretionary money will be spent. The state Chapter I monies for low-income students over which the school councils have control are really quite substantial—a minimum of $300,000 for an elementary school and as much as a million dollars for some of our larger high schools. As a result, we now have local school councils with five years’ experience making policy decisions.

It has been five years since the reform act was passed, and there is good evidence to show that it is working. At least one-third of the schools are working on focused restructuring efforts. However, as the designers of the legislation foresaw, the school reform has met with resistance, and it is hard to sustain momentum over the long haul. We need to revive interest in reform, and in my view, the learning zone designation will do that.

COLMAN GENN: Chicago has really led the way in school reform by making every school an independent entity with its own governing board. You have allowed the public schools in Chicago to operate like private or parochial schools, which are answerable to their own constituency of parents. Usually the board of education has a monopoly on the provision of public education. By giving each school its own elected council, you’ve broken that monopoly to a degree. Unfortunately, Chicago’s central bureaucracy is still in place. That bureaucracy not only absorbs money that should go to the schools, it produces regulations that prevent schools from functioning.

There is another movement afoot in educational reform that fits in very well with the learning zone concept: the charter school movement. Under charter legislation, the state can give a charter to a group of teachers and parents, a university, or another organization to operate a public school with public money. The schools are free of local, and most state, regulation.

In establishing enterprise zones you could use charter legislation to free the schools almost totally. Give schools 95 to 98 percent of the total spending on education, instead of the 40 percent the average school in New York City is getting now, and let them function independently.

DIANA NELSON: In Chicago, we’ve looked very closely at charter legislation. Unfortunately, interest groups are keeping a tight lid on the number of charters allowed. The proposal being circulated in the Illinois Legislature would only create 12 charter schools statewide, with probably four of those for Chicago. In contrast, we are recommending learning zone designation for 10 percent of the schools in Chicago, or 60 schools, in the first year.

COLMAN GENN: You have to be careful that you don’t create a new layer of bureaucratic oversight under the enterprise zone label. To prevent that from happening, you should let schools form their own enterprise zones and decide for themselves what the zone will do. The zones would then be the creatures of the schools, rather than the other way around.

For instance, several alternative schools in Brooklyn might want to get together and form their own zone. Together they might hire someone to create an office for support services they must now get from the central board, such as purchasing, staff development, or leadership training. If Amy Betanzos at the Wildcat Academy didn’t want to join them, God bless her. She might choose to buy assistance with staff development from Fordham University. Lorraine Monroe, on the other hand, who has been a professor at Bank Street College, might turn to Bank Street for help. And if Bank Street didn’t give her the services she wanted, she could shop elsewhere. In other words, I’m suggesting that schools really act like free institutions.

One of the great advantages of such a group would be the opportunity for like-minded people to work together and to give each other support. For instance, if you had a school with a weak principal, the other principals would be able to advise him or her. You could also give the zone the power to create new schools in the empty space in its buildings.

LARRY MONE: If you were going to design a zone where you could replicate the kinds of successful schools many of you have created, what would the ingredients be?

DIANA NELSON: One of the elements we’d like to include in the Chicago learning zone legislation is a lump-sum budget, which would allow schools to spend their money as they see fit. Currently, funds are strictly earmarked for specific purposes, giving the schools little or no flexibility. Lump-sum budgets would also allow schools to come up with creative ways to stretch their budgets, which are tight because of Chicago’s $450 million deficit.

AMALIA BETANZOS: I think a lump-sum budget is perhaps the most important tool you can give principals: I don’t think you can run a successful school nowadays without one. Last year we had a lump-sum budget with some of it earmarked for specific programs. This year more of our money was allocated for specific purposes, and I will fight tooth and nail to get out of those budget allocations again. The money for supplies was put in the budget, and I had to purchase them from the board; as a result, $20,000 worth of supplies I ordered from the board have not yet arrived. When I had a lump-sum budget, I could go out and buy whatever supplies we needed—paint, paper, wax, etc. If I had a stopped-up toilet, I didn’t have to wait three months for the board to fix it; I called a plumber and had it fixed right away. Of course you ultimately have to justify how you spent the money, but after you’ve had the flexibility of spending it as you needed it.

COLMAN GENN: Schools shouldn’t have to go through the central board to make repairs to their buildings. In New York City, the central board’s Division of Building and Maintenance has a backlog of 40,000 requests for repairs. If ever there were evidence of an organization’s inability to carry out its mission, that is it.

LORRAINE MONROE: Perhaps we should use the term “protected” zone instead of learning zone—protected from the things that stifle creativity and innovation, like reams of bureaucratic paperwork and senseless regulations. For instance, I’ve been told that my seventh graders can’t take the ninth grade algebra Regents exam because they’re not supposed to take the Regents until they are in high school. This is a battle I shouldn’t have to fight.

JOHN ELWELL: The alternative schools movement we created in District Three in some respects constitutes a de facto enterprise zone, because it buffers school leaders and staffs from some of these restrictions. In fact, as a director of alternative schools, it was my role to reinterpret or ignore a lot of regulations. Our goal was to get people to start thinking, What do I want to do? instead of, What will the system let me do? When they would object, saying that they could not do something because of this mandate or that, we would tell them to do it and blame us.

In some cases, breaking the rules entailed real risks. For example, a teacher might want to break a class into small groups, each working on a different task. Now according to the regulations, there must always be a licensed teacher for each group of children. If a school director said to me that he had a program that called for groups of students to meet in different rooms with adults from various professions—for instance, painters, actors, and poets—but that he couldn’t put a teacher in each room, I would tell the director to do it.

The regulations that hurt schools most are the ones preventing them from hiring the teachers they want. Any corporate or public-sector leader knows that hiring the right people is the whole ball game. Good schools have good teachers. But when a principal needs a teacher, he must call the personnel office. If there is a teacher in the district currently without an assignment, he is given the job. Moreover, the rules stipulate that you must use a licensed English teacher to teach English, even though a principal may know of a teacher with a social studies license who can not only teach English beautifully, but who fits comfortably into the school. Alternative school directors worth their salt would hire the social studies teacher, and they would probably get away with it because they are not as closely watched by the unions as a regular principal.

Of course, we had to pay a big psychological price for doing these things. After all, most people are not wild men and women; they want to follow the rules. But we found out that if we obeyed the rules, we couldn’t create good schools. It was a powerful moral and professional dilemma.

Learning zones could be of great benefit if they enabled principals to hire who they want, buy the supplies they need, and make repairs to their buildings quickly. Learning zones could also help with the difficult problem of measuring outcomes. Relief from regulation doesn’t mean schools shouldn’t be accountable. Allowing parents to send their child to the public school of their choice is a powerful way to keep schools accountable: I don’t know of a bad school where parents seek admission for their children. But we need other measures of a school’s performance as well, some arrived at by the schools themselves, some by an outside agency—which could be the zone. Zones could allow schools to opt in to get regulatory relief in exchange for agreed upon academic results.

DIANA NELSON: Freedom to choose staff by schools would be on my wish list for learning zones. Unfortunately, because of the unions, that is not on the table in Chicago. However, we have agreed that in cases where new staff is added, the schools will be able to do the recruiting and hiring themselves.

STEVEN PHILIPS: One of the things that we hope to permanently negotiate for the alternative schools in New York City is a peer selection process. Principals have never had any say about which teachers were transferred into their buildings, so one of our principals suggested that the faculty should select new teachers. As a result, in New York City’s new schools, a nucleus of the faculty—usually the people involved in creating the school—hire the new teachers. We’re finding it works well.

LARRY MONE: Would schools in learning zones need waivers from other elements of the teachers’ contract?

JOHN ELWELL: The teachers’ contract spells out requirements such as the length of a teacher’s lunch break, the number of periods a teacher gets for preparation a day, and the maximum number of classes they can teach in a row. If we hadn’t been able to ignore these at the alternative schools, it would have made our lives very difficult. For instance, sometimes you have to schedule more than three classes in a row. At one alternative school all the teachers and students took lunch together, family-style. In a regular school the teachers would have to have a 55-minute break. This can be a real problem. Adolescents eat lunch in half a second. That leaves 54 and a half minutes in which they can get rowdy. By the time you get them back in the classroom, you can’t teach them anymore.

In the alternative schools, in exchange for flexibility on contract provisions, we were able to offer teachers a real say in how they did their jobs. Teachers do need protection from abusive administrators, but if teachers are to be treated as professionals, they have to leave the union mentality behind.

LORRAINE MONROE: We haven’t talked about the importance of having imaginative, risk-taking, trained leaders. I agree that budget autonomy is critical, but you can’t give autonomy to a principal who doesn’t know what he or she is doing. We have a lot of successful schools in New York. Some of them should become demonstration schools where people can have internships and learn how the principal works and how problems are resolved.

Schools also need to develop a constituency made up of parents, community organizations, or corporations, that will run interference for them with the bureaucracy.

BRUCE COOPER: The role of the community in protecting and nurturing schools is critical. Are you going to use the local community organizations—the synagogues, churches, community centers, and political organizations—to rally support for schools in the learning zones?

JOHN ELWELL: The Manhattan School for Children was literally started by parents. These were middle-class folks who wanted to send their kids to the school across the street but didn’t like what was going on inside. We found a teacher to work with them, and they created a new school in the building. Today it is parent-driven and parent-protected. The parents are involved in the Alternative Schools Committee and come to board meetings, and the board knows to keep its hands off them. In the meantime we have a remarkable small elementary school.

STEVEN PHILIPS: In some cases it is wonderful to have community people or parents as part of the group running the school, and other times it isn’t. In some areas of the city, the people who would come to the fore are the last people to whom one would want to turn an educational enterprise over. The people at the Board of Education are not the only ones making money off the system. So the first thing these zones need are provisions about who the partners at the table are going to be and what mechanism we use to get them there.

LARRY MONE: Does the idea of a learning zone that is geographic make sense?

STEVEN PHILIPS: Well, from the New York City perspective it does. For example, the state has been trying to figure out what to do with the city schools identified as failing six years ago that still have not made the performance gains the state was demanding. If you look at the list of these schools, you will see that there are distinct geographic areas in the city where all the schools are on the list, including a couple of areas in the South Bronx and one in Greenpoint in Brooklyn.

COLMAN GENN: Geographic learning zones are a bad idea. We already have geographic learning zones—they are called school districts. If you organize a group of failing schools, the first thing they will do is rationalize their failure. Just as there are school cultures, there are school district cultures. We need to break the schools out of those cultures. If anything, you should connect failing schools to successful schools so they can learn what works.

There is an inherent tension between the idea of learning zones, which they are trying in Chicago, and school choice, which the Center for Educational Innovation, of which I am part, is promoting in New York City. In creating learning zones, you are focusing attention and resources on failing schools. In effect, you are rewarding failure. In contrast, the school choice philosophy calls for creating enough new schools that you can close down the bad schools so that they don’t absorb any more resources.

STEVEN PHILIPS: There’s a great difference between trying to reform existing schools, as they are trying to do in Chicago, and starting new schools. In New York, we have had very poor luck trying to change failing schools. The worst schools in the city have been getting the most resources for a long time. Since about 1978, some large zoned high schools have received about $20 million each over and above the standard funding formula, and they still haven’t improved.

Unfortunately, it is still terribly difficult to close bad schools. Former schools chancellor Joe Fernandez went to the mat over closing Julia Richman High School, and Chancellor Ray Cortines has done the same over James Monroe High School. But a number of school closing proposals are strangled by people at the schools. In trying to close down James Monroe High School, for instance, I found myself negotiating with the few people for whom the school worked: the president of the senior class who was going to Yale, the parents of the youngsters who got Regents scholarships, and the best teachers on the faculty. Nobody was representing the 83 percent of the kids who left the school without a diploma.

We need to remove failing schools from this endless negotiating process and have the legislature or state commissioner close them down. If Albany simply said it would not give state aid to any youngster attending a failing school, the school would have to close. I believe that the New York State Commissioner of Education, Tom Sobol, is about to ask the Board of Regents for the permission to do just that. Sobol also suggested six years ago that we come up with a voucher system so that every child going to a school which has been decertified would be entitled to go to any other school in the city.

LORRAINE MONROE: Some schools should be closed, but some schools can be resuscitated if you can change the leadership and find a constituency for change inside and outside the school.

DIANA NELSON: I agree. There are schools in the worst sections of Chicago that have been completely transformed by new leadership.

STEVEN PHILIPS: I am not sure that one can say we can walk into any school in the city and bring it to life. We have tried every idea known to man in the city’s troubled high schools. We’ve got increased guidance counseling, block programming, house plans, staff development, cooperative learning, and master learning, but the schools are still not working.

JOHN ELWELL: Schools can reach a point where the culture is so negative and entrenched that nothing short of closing them down and starting again will work. It is relatively easy to create new schools. The problem is insuring that they achieve what they set out to do. In the case of the Wadleigh school, where we closed down the school and created three new ones to take its place, two schools have been successful and one hasn’t. We are being forced to try to fix the failing school because politically we can’t close it down.

COLMAN GENN: I agree with John and Steve. We have to stop funding failure. Choice can’t operate if schools never close. In New York City we haven’t fully implemented choice. We are creating new schools that work, but the bad schools still end up filling their seats and wasting huge amounts of resources.

BRUCE COOPER: I wanted to ask a question: How do we get more money to schools in large cities like Chicago or New York? In school districts in Brooklyn Heights and Bedford Stuyvesant, on average only $2,114, or 28 percent, of the $7,512 per student New York City spends on education is reaching the classroom.

COLMAN GENN: You have to totally shut down the bureaucracy and let public schools be independent. In New York City, education is a $7.5 billion business, with 150,000 jobs. When our new chancellor ordered a count of the number of people working at the central board, he discovered there were 6,000 instead of the 3,600 reported by his predecessor. The school system is serving interests other than those of children. If you could sell basketballs or paper to the New York City schools you would be a very wealthy person. Very few people with a real interest in children are making the important decisions about education. That is why we have to let each public school become an independent entity. I certainly foresee all the dangers, but the system we have now is producing schools where 83 percent of the children don’t graduate.

STEVEN PHILIPS: Even without touching the funds that are going to administrative overhead, we could do a better job with the money our high schools are getting now if we had smaller schools operating under a different governance system.

When New York’s Public Education Association did a study of school funding four years ago, they found that it doesn’t cost any more to run a small school than it does to run a big school. People think that because small schools have small class sizes they cost more. But small schools tend to spend less on administrative staff. The net cost of the big and small schools to the Board of Education is exactly the same. We should take the $54 million in Chapter I funding away from the big high schools where it doesn’t seem to make any difference and invest it in starting up alternative schools.

The board’s biggest problem right now is finding real estate. We could open high schools all over the city if we could find the sites. For example, in the South Bronx three school districts near James Monroe High School have a lot of empty space in their school buildings. But the districts won’t let us have the space. When we try to rent space, community boards put pressure on the landlords not to rent to us.

COLMAN GENN: The best way to make space for new high schools is to close down the schools that are failing. People will always object to a school being closed in their neighborhood, even if it’s a terrible school. But if you open a new school, or several small schools, in the same building, they won’t object.

STEVEN PHILIPS: I think the building blocks of a learning zone are in place in New York, whether it’s the kind of structure that Cole Genn is talking about or one that nobody has yet imagined. In some ways the timing is very propitious. Through the New Visions program, we have experience with allowing people in the community to design schools, whether an activist group like East Brooklyn Congregations or a corporation. We have a state commissioner who is about to close down failing schools if they don’t improve by a certain deadline, which has never been done before. Then we have the Coalition Campus project, which allows us to close down a failing school, hot house small substitute schools, and eventually move them into the original school building.

We also can count on support from the United Federation of Teachers [UFT]. A study group within the UFT that has been meeting for several years to discuss school reform has supported changes that no union would have supported even ten years ago. And the local political leaders and even some people at the Board of Ed have been receptive to these ideas. All the pieces are there; it is just a matter of putting them together.

SHARE
respondrespondTEXT SIZE
If you enjoyed
this article,
why not subscribe
to City Journal? subscribe Get the Free App on iTunes Or sign up for free online updates: