Feature

Free-Market School Reform

A School District’s Entrepreneurism Raises Questions About Fairness, Funding, and the Best Place for Learning by Donna Harrington-Lueker


When free-market advocates talk about reforming public education, their rhetoric champions competition, innovation, and challenging the status quo.

In Uxbridge, Mass. a working-class New England mill town of 10,000 located about 40 miles southwest of Boston—that rhetoric has become a reality. With dogged persistence and an unwillingness to take no for an answer, the tiny school district has turned the world of education on its head with dramatic—and often controversial—changes in the way it delivers services to parents and children.

Its free-market innovations have even attracted the attention of leading players in school privatization. Early this winter, Alternative Public Schools, the Nashville, Tenn.-based firm that made headlines with its contract to manage a school in Wilkinsburg, Pa., hired Uxbridge Superintendent Michael Ronan to oversee its fledgling charter school initiative.

One reason for the interest: Uxbridge’s reforms are the kind free-market advocates can only dream of. Despite spending $1,200 less per pupil than the statewide average of $5,948, Uxbridge has been quick to embrace change. When the Massachusetts legislature approved a controversial school-choice plan in March 1991, the 2,100-student district didn't waste time: One month after the governor signed the bill, Uxbridge became the first district in the state to agree to participate—a decision that brought the school system $1.4 million in revenues over the last five years. Working with members of the local teachers union, Uxbridge was also among the first districts in the state to lengthen the school day and year—a key provision of the Bay State's ambitious school reform initiative.

In the last five years, too, Uxbridge has given vouchers to the parents of children who are eligible for federal Title I funds—the first school district in the country to take such a step—and it has agreed to reimburse nearly two dozen home-schooling families for up to $2,000 of their educational expenses. Both decisions have put the district and its maverick superintendent, Michael Ronan, on a collision course with the Massachusetts Department of Education, which twice rejected Ronan's argument that the home-schooling families, who are part of the district's Schools Without Walls program, should be included in the district's enrollment count for the purposes of state aid.

Undaunted by the state's previous rulings, the enterprising district plans this year to expand the program and launch an on-line high school that will allow students to earn credit for courses they take via the Internet. And as part of a fledgling initiative to encourage teams of teachers to create and market their own schools-within-schools, the school system has introduced the potential powder keg of variable pay. Under this approach to compensation, teachers could receive salaries according to the number of students they serve or the kind of programs they provide, not on their seniority or their place on the salary schedule.

Entrepreneurial Acts

Behind Uxbridge's ambitious laundry list of reforms are a few key tenets: Competition is healthy, alternatives are good, and parental involvement is possible if schools are willing to change traditional structures.

Ronan, a 15-year veteran of the district and the chief architect of the school system's free-market reforms, insists on two other principles as well: School districts need to innovate continually, even when programs are going well. And because funding levels are unlikely to change in the years ahead, school districts must develop new programs without incurring additional costs.

"It's just too easy to go with the status quo," says Ronan, an unlikely revolutionary in khakis and tweed, whose bare-bones basement office shares a paper-thin wall with one of the district's preschool classes. Unless public schools change to meet new economic realities, he adds, they risk becoming "marginalized."

Rather than run that risk, Uxbridge has kept the needs of its working-class families clearly in focus. Many Uxbridge parents commute daily to service-industry jobs in Providence, R.I., Worcester, Mass., and Boston, so the district offers a comprehensive child-care program that runs from 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. year-round in the school system's Early Learning Center. A preschool program open to disabled youngsters and a half-day kindergarten program are housed in the same building, so children who attend either program can simply cross the hall to the child-care center when kindergarten or preschool class ends. "It's all part of our seamless approach to service," says Ronan.

Working parents also benefit from the district's use of flexible scheduling. Under this arrangement, which took two years to negotiate with the union, some social workers, nurses, and guidance counselors work from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. so they can be available for after-school or evening conferences with parents or students. Other employees have negotiated half-time job-sharing arrangements.

Flexible scheduling also benefits the district. Beginning this year, Uxbridge will be able to hire employees to work a variety of schedules, including during the summer or peak testing periods, depending on the district's needs.

Retooling Title I

Those innovations pale in comparison with two of Uxbridge's most dramatic experiments. In 1991, as a handful of other school districts began to look for alternatives to the traditional pullout approach of remediation, Uxbridge offered the parents of its Chapter 1 (now Title I) children a choice: Their children could continue to receive special help in reading and mathematics during the regular school day—a practice that meant excusing children from other classes—or the district could provide parents with a voucher and allow them to purchase before- or after-school tutoring sessions on their own.

For Ronan and the Uxbridge school board, the open-market approach had obvious advantages: Allowing parents to arrange for their children's tutoring sessions made parents true partners in their children's education, Ronan and the school board reasoned. More importantly, the arrangement helped children avoid the stigma of being pulled out of class for remedial help. Since tutoring occurred before or after school or even on weekends, students wouldn't miss any of their regular class work. The vouchers, worth about $800 per child for 75 hours of tutoring, also could be used for summertime tutoring sessions.

Perhaps most significantly, as part of the program, classroom teachers coordinated lessons with the tutors to meet the needs of individual children, Ronan says.

"[Children aren't] just doing the same thing every day. Instead, we're using the time in the way that best meets the student's needs," the superintendent says. Instead of investing in high-overhead pullout programs, the district puts the bulk of its Title I funds into direct services to children.

Despite the advantages of the approach, the state's Title I office balked at the plan, Ronan says, and the district was forced to appeal to the U.S. Department of Education. (The Massachusetts Department of Education denies it opposed Uxbridge’s voucher plan. "Such after-school programs were clearly allowed," says department spokesperson Jan Feldman.)

After a string of letters explaining the school system's rationale for vouchers, officials in Washington eventually gave Uxbridge the green light to proceed, Ronan says.

Today, the district offers only the voucher program for Title I tutoring for children in grades 2 through 8. First-graders receive in-class instruction in Reading Recovery.

"We didn't think it was radical," says board member Karen Gervais-Maguire. "It just seemed like a common-sense issue: If you could provide a child with tutoring before or after school and not lose any instruction time, that just made sense."

Schools Without Walls

Some school board members say it also made sense to offer services to home-schooling students—a decision that locked Uxbridge into a paperwork battle with the state Department of Education.

Two years ago, Uxbridge approached approximately 17 home-schooling families with a proposition: If they agreed to cover the state-mandated curriculum, provide a minimum number of instructional hours, and have their children take the state assessment, the school system would agree to provide them with a voucher to cover a portion of their educational costs. The district issued another caveat as well: The families could only spend the funds on the kind of equipment, materials, and activities the school system could buy—they couldn't buy religious books, for example—and when parents were finished with them, the materials would become school property.

"We just saw it as a way of including home schoolers as part of the regular school population and providing them with services they normally wouldn't get," says board member Bill Broussard.

All but two families agreed to the plan, and Uxbridge's Schools Without Walls program had its first students. That first year, families received grants ranging from a few hundred dollars a year for kindergartners to $2,000 for high schoolers. Some home-schooling students even enrolled in classes at the high school.

To Ronan, the issue was clear-cut: Students in the Schools Without Walls program were required to meet the same requirements other students had to meet, and the district had found a way to deliver services that didn't run afoul of the Constitution. "The state charter school office even told us that if [Schools Without Walls] was a charter school, it would have been approved by the state," says Ronan.

The district also had the state's Commission on Time and Learning on its side, Ronan argued. The commission, which studied ways districts could increase learning time, had implicitly sanctioned arrangements like Schools Without Walls when it allowed schools to include directed study, independent study, and technology-based learning as learning time, even when certified teachers weren't supervising such activities, Ronan said.

The state Department of Education saw the issue differently: The students were not enrolled full-time and were not receiving instruction from certified teachers as state statutes required, so Uxbridge could not include them in its official count for the purposes of state aid, Education Commissioner Robert Antonucci told the district a year ago. Like any district in the state, Uxbridge could continue to make its facilities available to home schoolers, but "any additional costs incurred by [the district] ... must be borne locally," Antonucci continued.

Uxbridge kept up the pressure, insisting that the program met state guidelines, and this fall Department of Education officials approved Uxbridge’s enrollment count, which included 26 students in Schools Without Walls.

"We haven’t heard anything to the contrary," said Ronan, a week after the deadline for certifying enrollment had passed. "So we’re assuming that the kids are in."

The Camel's Nose

Whether the issue is Schools Without Walls or vouchers for Title I parents, Ronan is adamant that Uxbridge's scrappy free-market approach is the wave of the future for public education. Others aren't certain, though, whether Uxbridge's reforms are cutting-edge innovations or cutthroat competition.

Ronan himself acknowledges that when Uxbridge opened its schools to students from other districts, some officials in the state Department of Education criticized the district for "stealing money from other towns." And though Ronan dismisses any suggestion of Madison Avenue marketing on the district's part, others say the superintendent took an aggressive approach to school choice.

The result was a windfall for Uxbridge: One-hundred and twelve students enrolled in the district's choice plan, filling seats in existing classrooms that otherwise would have remained empty. In five years, those students brought Uxbridge $1.4 million in new revenues.

In cash-strapped Massachusetts, that's a significant sum—and that worries some of Ronan's colleagues, according to Peter Finn, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents. Finn praises Uxbridge's commitment to change and its persistence. "It's clearly trying to do something on the cutting edge when it doesn't have the resources other school districts have," he says.

But such innovations lead some to worry that Uxbridge’s unconventional reforms—like choice and Schools Without Walls—will siphon off much-needed funds from other districts and programs, Finn says. They worry, too, he acknowledges, that if schools rely on such free-market principles, the state's poorest students are likely to become further disenfranchised.

Concetta Verge, superintendent of the Douglas School District, which shares a boundary with Uxbridge, takes issue with both vouchers and choice. "My concern is with your ability to control a child's education and ensure success," says Verge, who adds she would never consider a home-schooling arrangement like Uxbridge's. As for choice, she says, she'd be more comfortable with the reform if she were confident that parents and students would select schools and school districts on the basis of academic programs and not "sports or girlfriends and boyfriends."

"I'm an advocate of the old-fashioned notion that competition is good and forces us to do our best," says Verge. "But the reason for choice has to be legitimate and education-oriented."

Add technology into the calculus of school reform the way Uxbridge wants to with its expansion of the Schools Without Walls program, and professional disagreements are likely to flare even more, says Jim Peyser, executive director of the Boston-based Pioneer Institute, a conservative think tank that's been active in school reform in the Bay State.

Schools Without Walls clearly welcomes "those who have traditionally been locked out of the public schools," he says. But it also raises "all kinds of issues" about who is qualified to teach and where learning takes place. Technology will only exacerbate those issues, Peyser says, and present a formidable challenge to the state's powerful teacher unions and to traditional ideas about schools and schooling.

For Ronan's opponents, Uxbridge's Schools Without Walls is "the camel's nose under the tent," says Peyser, who also serves as a member of the state Board of Education. "It's a good idea, but obviously it's a threatening one."

Nationwide Attention

The biggest threat to the status quo, though, is Uxbridge's own success. This fall, the state Board of Education cited Uxbridge as one of five school districts in the state to show significant improvement on the statewide assessment. On some portions of the test, Uxbridge students scored as much as 80 points above the statewide average.

And though some predict the school system’s rapid-fire pace will slow with Ronan’s departure, others suggest that in Massachusetts, the time is right for the kind of entrepreneurism Uxbridge has been practicing.

Former Boston University President John Silber, who now chairs the board, is said to be impatient with the pace of reform in Massachusetts and receptive to free-market ideas like Uxbridge’s.

In one of the new board's first public meetings, Silber encouraged schools to "break away from conventional thinking, such as assuming all teachers must arrive and leave at the same time." If teachers' schedules were staggered, he said, schools could extend the school day, students could have more time to spend on academic subjects, and no teacher would have to work longer hours. As many point out, though, that's precisely what Uxbridge has already begun to do with flexible scheduling.

Revolutionaries, after all, don’t wait for approval, not even that of a bombthrower like Silber.

Donna Harrington-Lueker is a free-lance education writer based in Newport, R.I.