The greatest problem we have in education today is that the system actually discourages, rather than encourages, innovation.
Recently we requested a page and word count on state and federal statutes and regulations that regulate education. The response we received from the lawyers who draft the education laws for Texas was: "Locating all of the applicable federal provisions that are scattered among the 50 titles of the U.S.C. would be nearly impossible. ... [I]t would be very difficult to locate the volume of public education law in the federal statutes. ... The Texas Education Code is comprised of five hard-bound volumes as published by West; the volume of federal education law is greater. ...”
If the lawyers cannot even find all the laws and regulations, how can we expect educators to even know what is required of them? The enormous volume of these laws and regulations greatly restrict innovation and creativity.
Each of these rules was initially put in place for good reason. But in total, they stifle creativity and innovation. Remember what former Texas Education Commissioner Skip Meno (an Ann Richards appointee) used to say: "Measure outputs rather than inputs. Set local educators free to make decisions, don’t tell them how to do their jobs, but put in place a strong accountability system and hold them accountable for results." He was right on target. In my opinion, one of the best decisions Richards made was the appointment of Meno. He had a great vision of where we needed to go and what we should do.
Speaking of vision, when George W. Bush was running for governor, he promoted the Home Rule Charter concept: Remove the rules and regulations from local school districts, other than health and safety issues, and set them free to make decisions locally — yet hold them accountable for results. Unfortunately, the legislation that passed did not reflect the Bush vision.
We could design a system whereby educators were encouraged, rather than discouraged, to be more entrepreneurial. But it would require sacrificing many sacred cows, and it would require that we make decisions based on the interest of students who do not vote rather than the many stakeholders who do vote. One of the gravest errors I made in politics one time was to tell a group of school principals I was trying to change the rules in order to modify the culture of the education community. Although it was the truth, I should have kept my mouth shut.
The interest of the millions of school children in this nation demands that someday we will have to make many very difficult choices. We have thousands of great educators. We should set them free, allow them to be more entrepreneurial and hold them accountable for results. Instead, we make decisions in Washington and Austin that unfortunately have the effect of discouraging innovation. For the most part we pay the worst the same as the best — thankfully, we are making some progress in this regard, but it is slow in coming. (It is great that even President Obama’s secretary of education agrees with the need for incentives for teachers.) In addition to rewarding success, we must then allow educators to do their jobs. That means getting unnecessary rules out of their way.
Meno and Bush had some good ideas for Texas. Unfortunately, we have failed to adequately implement and build on those concepts in Texas. Real change and improvement will require cultural change in our school system, and that change will only occur with structural change. Such change will be politically difficult. In hindsight, the worst decision Bush made as governor was probably the failure to reappoint Meno, as he was more supportive of the education concepts that Bush expressed during the campaign than the ultimate Bush appointee.
Another issue Bush campaigned on when he was running for governor was a pilot school choice/voucher program. Both Bush and then Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock, a Democrat, were supportive of the concept. Speaker Pete Laney, also a Democrat, was opposed. I believe that Laney basically told Bush, “Over my dead body,” and therefore Bush backed down. If it had been implemented, we would now have about 15 years of data on the pilot project, and we might know more about the impact of such a program. Additionally, we might know how such a concept might affect educator motivation, creativity and entrepreneurship.
School choice may or may not be one answer to the problem of greater creativity, efficiency and quality in education. However, what I have never been able to understand is why rank-and-file teachers seem to be so opposed to the implementation of even a pilot program. I can understand why teachers unions would be opposed — their power is derived from centralized decision-making, and that collective power would be jeopardized by the empowerment of local educators and parents. I can understand why some superintendents would oppose choice, since some of their power and control of funds would be lost to local campus based decisions. Yet the competition for good teachers and principals would drive up salaries for those professions, just as competition, not collective bargaining, has driven up pay for every other profession. I have never understood why rank-and-file teachers do not understand how competition might benefit them individually through better pay and better working conditions.
If Bush had stood up to Laney in 1994 and insisted on his pilot program, we might have better data to evaluate these questions in Texas today. Who knows?
Kent Grusendorf, who represented House District 94 in the Texas Legislature from 1987 to 2007, chaired the House Public Education Committee in the 2003 and 2005 sessions. Previously he served on the State Board of Education. This column originated as a response to an e-mail sent by former University of Texas System Regent Charles Miller to a group of education advocates.