Can Public Schools Really Change?

Emily Bazelon:

Why New Haven’s ambitious new education strategy might actually succeed.
As the recent Chicago teacher strike demonstrated, public school systems are phenomenally difficult institutions to change. The array of competing forces–unions, politicians, parents, principals, charter schools, state and national bureaucrats–gums up many reform efforts and frustrates all but the most persistent reformers. But what’s happening in the historically troubled New Haven, Conn., public school system suggests there may be ways around this, ways that all sides can support.
In 2009, New Haven’s school district and teachers’ union signed a groundbreaking contract for the 21,000-student system. The four-year deal included a small annual pay hike–and allowed the district to give merit bonuses, close failing schools, and evaluate teachers based in part on student performance. The contract’s reform-minded provisions brought praise to a struggling urban district, from admirers including Obama’s Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, and New York Times columnists David Brooks and Nicholas Kristof. Three years later, there are signs that cultural change is coming, too, in fits and starts. It’s especially evident in the district’s unusual effort to groom future leaders by handing them over to a local charter network that it used to view as an upstart threat.

New Haven will spend $370,000,000 during the 2012-2013 school year for its 20,759 students or $17,823/student. Madison plans to spend $15,132/student during the same school year.