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An Accidental Revolution

books and culture

An Accidental Revolution

Terry Moe explores how Hurricane Katrina prompted New Orleans to reinvent its dysfunctional school system—and why education reform is so hard to achieve. August 6, 2019
Education

The Politics of Institutional Reform: Katrina, Education, and the Second Face of Power, by Terry M. Moe (Cambridge University Press, 174 pp., $44.99).

Since the 1980s, a bipartisan education-reform movement has attempted to improve America’s schools. Though reformers secured victories here and there, their successes remain small and incremental. Teachers’ unions, school districts, and allied politicians have weakened, watered down, or otherwise blocked what the reformers have tried to accomplish. The basic model of American public education remains intact, as President Barack Obama’s Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, conceded when he described public education as “broken” and called on Americans to “fix it.”

In a sobering new book, The Politics of Institutional Reform, Stanford University political scientist Terry M. Moe shows how “vested interests”—from teachers’ unions to school administrators—limit the prospects for reform. School boards and superintendents, whose power and prestige hinge on how schools are organized and run, exploit America’s political institutions to block change. To make his case, Moe studies New Orleans before and after Hurricane Katrina, showing how education politics work when entrenched interests hold power—and what education policy might look like in different hands. In New Orleans, as in much of the country, established interests had long prevented reformers’ efforts. Prior to Katrina, the city’s public school system was a poster child of American education gone wrong: low graduation rates, dismal student test performance, and incompetent administration. Equipment—computers, air conditioners, musical instruments—was regularly stolen. Millions of public dollars were unaccounted for. Corruption was so widespread that the FBI opened an office in the district’s administrative building. Despite manifest failings, the system lumbered along.

Then Katrina struck, wiping out the New Orleans school district. Many families left the city. The schools were shut down for months, and teachers were let go. Even the local teachers’ union hemorrhaged members and money. Louisiana state government pushed aside the local school board and took control. Katrina thus prompted an unintended experiment in public education. Operating with a freer hand after the storm, reformers demonstrated what could be done. Their work turned New Orleans into what Moe calls the “most innovative, distinctively different education system in the entire country” and the “brightest star in the education reform universe.”  

Through the story of New Orleans, Moe reveals how teachers’ unions, school boards, and other forces of the education establishment exercise hidden power to stifle change. Before Katrina, the city’s reformers, knowing that challenging the system would likely end in defeat, focused on modest efforts. Conflict over the city’s education policy concerned small-bore proposals. The status quo consistently prevailed.

To explain New Orleans—and, by extension, education politics in big cities—Moe offers a powerful theoretical insight. Almost all government policies, he argues, create beneficiaries, who then look to sustain the policies—and resist change. It’s much easier to oppose change than to implement it, and American political institutions never run short of public officials who can stop, redirect, or weaken ambitious proposals. Reformers must surmount every barrier they encounter, while vested interests need only succeed at blocking one point in the process to achieve their goal. These basic features of political institutions, Moe argues, mean that change is slow and incremental—if it occurs at all.

In education, these entrenched forces defend a system that few would argue is successful in educating children. The dysfunction results from thousands of small decisions. Unions pursue policies that protect teachers’ job security, lessen their workload, increase their wages and benefits, constrain management, and reduce class sizes. School districts, in turn, look to increase enrollment and funding, win greater autonomy from state and federal directives, and encourage bureaucratic harmony. These efforts result in a system that best serves adults, not kids.

The education-reform movement, of course, seeks to shake up these arrangements. The movement’s two bywords are accountability and choice. Accountability means documenting teacher performance through rigorous evaluations, linking pay to performance, and removing bad teachers. Choice means introducing competition into American public education by giving parents and children more options in the form of charter schools or vouchers to attend private schools.

Though no one planned it, and many implementers were skeptical of it, the system that emerged in New Orleans after Katrina is comprised almost entirely of charter schools. Children select their schools, which compete to attract and retain students. Decision-making is decentralized at the school level, and performance data are made public. Though the city’s schools are far from perfect, evidence suggests that they function better than the pre-Katrina school system.

Moe doesn’t write as a cheerleader of charter schools or of the New Orleans system. He argues that even if the city’s reforms prove successful, they are unlikely to provide a model for other school systems—at least, not unless other cities find a way (short of natural disaster) to shake up the power structure of their own public schools. Moe’s book explains the political and institutional patterns that make changing education policy so hard and why the unintended experiment provoked by Hurricane Katrina has been so revealing. It’s a bracing but necessary read for education reformers.

Photo: dlewis33/iStock

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