The Laura and John Arnold Foundation is impressive for its intellectual honesty and curiosity. They have an education reform strategy with which I have some important differences, but they are nevertheless interested in hearing criticism of their approach, so they invited me to present my critique to their board. Below is the essence of what I prepared for that meeting. I don’t expect that this will cause them to alter course, nor should it. It’s their money and they should do whatever they think best. But the amazing thing about the Arnolds and the head of their education effort, Neerav Kingsland, is that they are at least open to the possibility of being wrong and want to hear criticism in case they would like to reconsider any aspects of their strategy.
The heart of the Arnold reform strategy is Portfolio Management, which is a term with which they are not enamored, but is essentially a rapid expansion of choices across different sectors with a centralized and muscular system for engaging in quality control. The Portfolio Manager would govern schools of all types in a location — traditional, charter, and perhaps private — and select which schools should be allowed to operate, which should be closed, and police certain aspects of their operations, including admissions, transportation, and perhaps special education, discipline, and other issues. I’m a fan of the rapid expansion of choices, but I believe that the centralized and muscular quality control system produces significant educational and political damage. I am not suggesting that the Arnold Foundation (or the charter movement in general ) abandon all quality control efforts, but I think quality is best promoted by relying heavily on parent judgement and otherwise relying on a decentralized system of authorizers with the most contextual information to make decisions about opening and closing schools if parents seem to have difficulty assessing quality on their own. The problem with Portfolio Management is the centralized and overly-active nature of a single quality-control entity. Here is my case in 7 points: