The Structure of Educational Revolutions

Andy Smarick

Summer 2017

In the last generation, and in the last 15 years in particular, the federal government has assumed an increasingly intrusive role in public K-12 education. But this isn't simply a reflection of Washington's current appetite for power; it must also be understood as a natural consequence of a decision made more than a century ago.

Progressive Era reformers, seeking to rationalize America's then-inchoate system of public education, decided that one government body — the school district — should own and operate all public schools in a particular geographic area. By consolidating power, this "exclusive-territory franchise" model determined that future reforms would flow through a central apparatus and down to schools, not from the ground up. It also enabled ambitious reformers to scale their initiatives by moving to higher levels of government: Unsatisfied by district action, reformers worked through the state government, then moved up to the federal level.

In other words, the single-government-provider model established by Progressive Era leaders ensured that authority would be perpetually channeled up and in. From that point on, those wanting to improve schools — whether by increasing funding, improving teacher quality, or something else — had to work through a uniform, hierarchical system. Recent reform efforts, such as Common Core and Race to the Top, can therefore be seen as the logical extension of earlier centralizing efforts. The organizational structure of American K-12 schooling imposed at the turn of the 20th century foreordained today's educational technocracy.

This centralization has elicited broad and deep frustration, leading Congress to significantly dial back federal activity in the recently passed federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Though some on the right have hailed the law as a major win, conservative reformers would be wise to temper their expectations. Since the law simply addresses the symptoms (a hyperactive Uncle Sam), not the underlying cause (district-monopoly delivery), we should expect ESSA to be a pause on, not the end of, centralized K-12 decision-making. The next generation of reformers will face the same institutional arrangement as their predecessors, along with its clear incentives to advance change through centralized authorities at higher levels of government.

But there is reason for optimism. For the last 25 years, states have been slowly, quietly moving away from the district-monopoly approach. The advent and expansion of charter schooling, vouchers, tax credits, and education savings accounts have multiplied and diversified the options available to families. Millions of students now receive public funding to choose schools run by entities other than traditional districts. If this educational-pluralism movement continues to expand, the subsequent redistribution of authority to parents, educators, nonprofit-school operators, and civil-society organizations could serve as the ultimate bulwark against technocracy.

The movement toward school differentiation and choice should not be viewed as merely a generator of educational escape hatches for impoverished families, or as a source of competitive forces to make the district-monopoly system more efficient. Instead, we should see it as a dramatically different means of organizing and delivering public schooling that has had, and would continue to have if expanded, a cascading effect on a host of longstanding K-12 policies and practices. In other words, differentiation and choice is not an addendum or alteration to the Progressive Era model; it is a counterargument with far-reaching consequences.

Seen through this lens, preservation of the traditional exclusive-territory franchise model looks like a conservative enterprise. It would protect a conventional institution that has been time-tested and has proven itself capable of meeting ongoing and changing community needs. Likewise, the differentiation-and-choice movement can be seen as a radical endeavor, one that seeks to overturn a century of practice with a wholly new, theory-based approach.

This is generally not how conservative education reformers have understood their work. But this alternative frame proves helpful in at least two ways. First, if conservatives are willing to concede that the longevity and stability of the state-led district-monopoly system implies that it has virtues — communitarian and pluralistic virtues that conservatives would typically support — we can better identify that system's particular strengths, and appreciate the factors that have made it so hard to change. As a result of this new perspective, we can hone the alternative choice-based system to address these issues. Second, if conservatives are willing to concede that the differentiation-and-choice movement is a revolutionary approach that would overturn a century-old decision and the countless policies and practices that have flowed from it, we can better understand the expanse of its potential reach, including its possibilities and risks.


Conservatives have been right to note that a centralized school system serves a number of progressive aims. For example, if each area has a single government provider, labor can use its state-level political influence to convince state legislatures to pass laws requiring those providers to hire unionized labor. Then, with a single school board authorized to negotiate collective-bargaining agreements, labor can use its local political influence to help elect union-friendly board members. Similarly, if schools are controlled centrally, new progressive initiatives can be implemented swiftly and comprehensively.

But there are other, less partisan, structural explanations for why our K-12 system seems to rebuff mass decentralization efforts. First and foremost, state governments are the entities ultimately responsible for K-12 public schooling. Though the exact language can differ from state to state, state constitutional provisions make it clear that state governments are obligated to ensure their students are well educated; according to those documents, states must create a "thorough and efficient" or "general and uniform" or "common" system of primary and secondary schools. That legal buck can't be passed down (districts, like municipalities, are merely creatures of state law) or up (in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled there is no federal right to education).

In addition to this legal obligation, state leaders also feel a financial obligation. K-12 represents the largest share of state budgets, receiving more funding than even health care and higher education. Today, the average K-12 school receives the same amount of funding from local and state sources. In low-income areas, the state government provides the lion's share of school funding. Combined, these obligations have compelled state leaders, not irrationally, to become increasingly prescriptive. They reason that if voters and the courts are going to hold the state accountable for results, the state needs to direct behavior. Hence more state mandates in areas state leaders believe will generate improved outcomes — class size, length of the school day, school programs, and much more.

State governments also have an interest in maintaining the statewide comparability of schools. State leaders might worry that local traditions — everything from tourist towns with short school years to accommodate vacationers to the massive resistance to desegregation in the 1960s — will inhibit some students' learning. So states create policies based on equity and access. State leaders also want all of their students, regardless of where in the state they live, to learn similar skills and information, so they create statewide content standards. They want to be able to understand how districts' results stack up against one another, so they create statewide tests. They want teachers to be able to move from one district to another, so they create statewide certification rules. They want a high-school diploma to have a consistent meaning, so they create statewide graduation requirements.

Although the district-monopoly system came about prior to most of these state-level rules (and, in some cases, prior to the codification of the K-12 state-constitutional obligation), this system clearly facilitates the state's modern aims. The creation of hyper-local districts to run public schools is not illogical. Many of these entities emerged organically and initially oversaw just a single school. This phenomenon respected America's vast diversity, adhered to the principle of subsidiarity, and reflected our Tocquevillian impulse to barn-raise. Even if states were to create a brand-new system of public education today, few would argue that the state government should centrally operate all of the public schools within its borders. So educational localism is, at minimum, sensible.

But the Progressive Era decision to institutionalize districts as exclusive-territory franchises added uniformity to localism. That is, our predecessors didn't simply decide that schools should be operated and governed at the community level; they decided that a single operator and governance structure should control all public schools in that area. While we can and should revisit that decision and discuss how to have localism and differentiation, we must recognize that such a combination would undermine the interests of higher-level government officials. Put simply, state governments are far better equipped to implement their directives if they are able to work through a limited number of local monopolies. If state education systems were instead composed of a vast number of nonprofit-school operators, a variety of governance models, and meaningful differentiation among schools, state governments would have a far more difficult time driving their initiatives, preserving statewide comparability, and responding to plaintiffs' claims that the system is inequitable.

Similarly, it's far easier for the federal government to advance its priorities when there's a consolidated system under it. For example, on educator effectiveness, the federal No Child Left Behind Act was able to reach all of the nation's classrooms through its "highly qualified teacher" rules by forcing mandates on the states, which forced them upon their districts, which forced them upon their schools. Race to the Top was similarly able to swiftly apply its educator-evaluation policies through the same chain of action. Such streamlined implementation would be impossible in a decentralized system of highly autonomous schools of choice. Indeed, as political scientist James Scott has written, the "administrative ordering" of expansive enterprises provides the capacity for exactly this kind of large-scale reform.

Advocates of a decentralized, choice-based system of schools must be cognizant of these very real state-level institutional arrangements and incentives standing in the way. For instance, how do we enable states to meet their state-constitutional obligations in a far more decentralized system? In the current model, state leaders can argue to courts and taxpayers that a hierarchical structure plus statewide rules on funding, assessments, seat time, educator licensure, and so on prove that the state is doing its level best to maintain a high-performing school system.

One could argue that this kind of accountability is possible under an alternative, decentralized approach. States could, for instance, eliminate most input rules and instead focus on outcomes. The state could approve a vast array of providers to run a variety of schools, which would be freed from a range of operational rules. The state government (or its designees) could then monitor providers and schools through performance contracts to ensure they were succeeding. This would be akin to a statewide approach to what is now called charter-school "authorizing," whereby a state-approved body authorizes schools to open, assesses their performance, and shuts down failures. Vouchers and education savings accounts (ESA) are similar approaches; they too enable families to choose from among a greater selection of options, though these policies have less public accountability than performance-contract-based chartering.

But the legal — and some would say political — legitimacy of current charter, voucher, and ESA programs stems from their running parallel to the traditional district-based system. That is, the state is able to continue meeting its obligations because it preserves the historical district-based system. If, however, differentiation-and-choice advocates sought to replace the district-based system, or even grow choice programs to the point of destabilizing the district-based system, political and constitutional challenges would be immediate. In legislatures, critics would charge that a market-based system of independent, differentiated, choice-based schools would inevitably create winners and losers. In the courts, plaintiffs would argue that this approach, by definition, runs afoul of state constitutional provisions requiring the state to maintain "common" or "uniform" schools. Indeed, in late 2015, the Washington state Supreme Court ruled that the state's charter-school law was unconstitutional because it undermined the state's "common" schools.

There are two additional reasons why states would find it difficult to reconsider their reliance on comprehensive mandates and districts' exclusive-territory franchises. The first is, perhaps unexpectedly, the new federal education law, ESSA. In numerous places, the statute takes for granted the district-monopoly approach and requires the states to honor it. ESSA could have catalyzed state-level efforts to encourage non-district school operators and new governance arrangements. Instead, it requires, for example, the state to distribute virtually all school-improvement and student-service dollars directly to existing districts. The law might have seen the existence of persistently failing district-run schools as an opportunity to encourage states to expand parental choice and non-district operators. Instead, the law defers to existing districts; districts are given the power to remedy failing schools, and if states want to engage in school-improvement activities, they must receive the "approval" of their districts. This is not meant to suggest that conservatives in Congress were intentionally hostile to school differentiation and parental choice. But by taking for granted Progressive Era institutional arrangements, Congress buttressed the centralizing features of our K-12 system.

The second reason is that many are attracted to the "unifying" power of a state-led system composed of local monopolies. For some, America's strength is its patchwork character, its pluribus. That can be accentuated through differentiated, choice-based schools. But other Americans are preoccupied by the perceived need to reassert our unum. That sense can be animated by, among other things, nostalgia for the halcyon days of post-WWII national accord, concerns about mass immigration, a belief in the virtue of schools serving as melting pots, and the divisiveness of contemporary American politics. For these citizens, a centralized school system might have the downside of facilitating technocratic schemes, but it also has the upside of facilitating assimilation and acculturation — in which schools have always played a central role.

In sum, then, conservatives have historically been wont to blame unions' political power for the states' maintenance of a centralized system of schools. But any serious attempt to decentralize these systems must wrestle with a longer list of factors, including state obligations stemming from constitutional provisions, state responsibilities stemming from significant investments, the states' interest in comparability, the state and federal reliance on a consolidated system, state voters' belief in a system of unifying schools, and — as evidenced by ESSA — our reflexive deference to traditional districts. 

And this final factor, for fundamentally conservative reasons, proves especially difficult to unwind.


There are a number of reasons why the preservation of the district-based system would seemingly appeal to conservatives. In our quest to expand school differentiation and choice, the right has done too little to articulate, appreciate, and address these factors. We must begin by recognizing that school districts are hyper-local, longstanding, democratic institutions. Districts are among our nation's smallest units of government; the average district has only about seven schools, and thousands of districts have three or fewer. This enables small communities to differentiate themselves and create schools that pass down their particular values and cultures. Such small democratic governing units also empower voters: the smaller the denominator, the more influential each addition to the numerator. Such small-scale democracy is one tried-and-true means of distributing authority and limiting government power.

Many believe that decisions related to public schooling should be more communal than merely a collection of private choices. That is, when it comes to schools, some would argue that the public good might not necessarily be served by individual families selecting from among autonomous schools. A communitarian line of thinking would hold that families are the primary but not the only repositories of personal and civic virtue. We get meaning from, are constructively regulated by, and become citizens through our engagement with the community and its mediating institutions. A student of Robert Nisbet, for instance, might reasonably understand that the principle of subsidiarity requires a decentralized system of schools — but decentralized no farther than small, democratic, community-based units. The traditional American school district fits that bill nicely.

Most school districts have now existed for a century or more, so a reasonable conservative conclusion would be that they are time-tested and evolutionarily robust. Presumably, the practices of their professionals and the resilient policies of the system possess wisdom gained through experience — for example, how to nurture vulnerable children, teach reading, engage the community, staff classrooms, and enforce discipline. Longstanding districts almost certainly have a sophisticated (even if unarticulated) understanding of the immutable issues of schooling — the strengths, weaknesses, needs, and hopes of particular students, families, and neighborhoods.

As democratic institutions, districts have been forced to adapt as their communities have changed over time and larger societal shifts have taken place; in other words, they are in the business of continually making timely decisions about timeless issues. More philosophically, adherents of Burke, Oakeshott, or Kirk might argue that local school districts are America's established convention of public schooling: They link individuals and generations, provide stability, and find workable solutions to fundamental challenges. As such, a conservative response to a large charter-school or voucher initiative could be, "That's entirely too risky and destabilizing."

There is no doubt that districts' residence-based school-assignment system is one of the most technocratic features of K-12 education. Only a central administrator bent on orderliness and efficiency would devise a public-education system composed of identical, numbered schools with students enrolled based on their home addresses. Conservatives have been right to note that these arrangements prioritize the needs of the monopoly over those of parents and inhibit families' right to educational self-determination. At its worst, this system also has the profoundly perverse effect of requiring low-income families (lacking the means to move elsewhere or pay for private-school tuition) to send their children to unsafe and academically unsound schools.

But at its best, this system could be seen as ably serving communitarian and pluralistic purposes. When attendance zones are drawn with care, a school can bring together families with shared priorities but different socio-economic circumstances. This kind of egalitarian organizing principle serves the social-capital aims of Robert Putnam and the cultural bubble-bursting aims of Charles Murray. This system also enables many families (those possessing the means to relocate) to find the districts that best suit their needs, with "needs" being defined however those families choose (e.g., academics, sports, culture). Accordingly, many families actively choose the "assigned" schools that their children attend. In this way, district-run schools are a type of voluntary association, a building block of civil society.

Local districts are often criticized for being hidebound and sclerotic due to their age, union contracts, and civil-service rules. This obviously hinders entrepreneurialism and responsiveness. But it can also inhibit grand, progressive schemes emanating from state capitals and Washington. In this sense, the plodding nature of district change can actually serve as conservatism's brake. Though central administrators and other national experts scolded districts for their parochialism or backwardness when they refused to participate in Race to the Top or dragged their feet on NCLB implementation, in hindsight these districts seem to have been standing athwart education history, yelling "Stop!" 

Lastly, although some conservatives derisively refer to the district system of "government schools," this veils the vast array of civil-society activity associated with these state bodies. Though their schools are publicly governed, regulated, and funded, districts are intertwined with countless voluntary associations, including PTAs, booster clubs, alumni associations, service organizations, sports teams, bands, tutoring groups, and much more. These district schools host community plays in their auditoriums, craft fairs in their cafeterias, junior sports leagues on their fields, and so on. The government is undeniably a part of this landscape, but the web of involved civil-society actors isn't merely scenic; it's indispensable to the health of the ecosystem.

To strong advocates of school differentiation and choice, such defenses of the district-based system may seem quaintly theoretical. That is, seeing a government monopoly through the eyes of Burke, Tocqueville,  Kirk, and Putnam may be intellectually stimulating, but it's of little practical value. But arguably the most interesting discussion in urban-education reform today, and certainly the biggest threat to charter and voucher programs, revolves around the resurgence of pro-district sentiment. Indeed, conservatives have been caught entirely flat-footed by this conversation in no small part because we have not grappled with these conceptual matters in recent years. We've left ourselves unprepared for the heated political debate that has emerged and bereft of solutions as policies are crafted.


The genesis of our problem was, ironically, one of conservatism's most influential intellectual contributions to domestic policy in the last several generations. Marshalling new empirical data and putting to use the arguments of John Stuart Mill, Milton Friedman, and others, John Chubb and Terry Moe published the seminal Politics, Markets, and America's Schools in 1990. It gave rise to, or at least catalyzed, conservatives' interest in and commitment to the modern school-choice movement. The nation's first voucher program (in Milwaukee) and first charter-school law (in Minnesota) both got off the ground in the early 1990s.

The basis for Chubb and Moe's pro-differentiation-and-choice argument was their conclusion that "democratic control" was the fundamental flaw holding back the district-based system. Unions and other adult-focused interest groups could easily capture an elected school board and then push policies and practices inimical to the improvement of schools. Under this system, district jobs would always be protected, funding increases would be directed to higher salaries and benefits, schools would be insulated from parental pressure, school hours would be limited, pedagogical approaches would be standardized instead of differentiated, and so on.

During this same era, America was coming to grips with the multi-generational failure of traditional urban school districts: The bat-wielding urban-school principal Joe Clark was put on the cover of Time magazine; the new organization Teach for America was recruiting the young graduates of elite colleges to teach in — and hopefully fix — failing inner-city schools; and the media increasingly covered the astonishing dysfunction of urban school boards. Many conservatives concluded, not irrationally, that urban districts were irredeemably broken, that Chubb and Moe's "democratic control is the problem" thesis was sound, and that the winning policy and political solution was choice and competition.

As a result, not only have conservatives advocated for charter- and private-school choice initiatives, we've advocated for policies that entirely separate these programs from democratic elections. For example, instead of relying on traditional elected school boards to serve as charter-school authorizers, we've sought "alternative" or "independent" (that is, non-district) authorizers. These entities — usually nonprofits, universities, state boards of education, or state chartering boards — almost always have appointed, not democratically elected, boards. Similarly, voucher, tax-credit, and ESA programs typically bypass democratic control entirely: A policy mechanism directs state funding to families, who can then choose from among independent schools.

The upshot of this differentiation-and-choice advocacy has been nothing short of astounding. Not only are millions of families making use of scores of state-level charter and choice programs, but in many cities today, staggering percentages of students are in schools that are largely free of district and democratic control. In New Orleans, about 90% of students attend charter schools independent of the locally elected school board, and thousands more attend private schools thanks to vouchers. In Detroit and Washington, D.C., about half of students are in charters outside the reach of the traditional districts. In Cleveland and Indianapolis, one-third of students are in charters, and both cities have significant voucher programs.

But this remarkably successful wave of reform premised on expanded differentiation and choice has produced — some might say invited — a strong counter-reformation. There is a mounting national movement to reassert democratic control of schools. After Hurricane Katrina, the state of Louisiana removed nearly all New Orleans public schools from the locally elected school board (turning them into charters and placing them under state oversight) and enabled a large number of new independent charters to open. A decade later, though the system's academic results had improved dramatically, many city residents were aggrieved: Their schools had been taken away, and the community writ large had virtually no control over the character of the charter system. Families were making independent choices about independent schools.

So pronounced was this local animus that the state passed legislation in the spring of 2016 to put the city's expansive independent charter-school sector back under the control of the democratically elected local school board. Detroit has seen a similar backlash, and Michigan's legislature has debated the creation of a "Detroit Education Commission," a local board that would have control over both the traditional district and the independent charter-school sector. On the national level, the Democratic Party's platform language on education was amended in July 2016 to explicitly state that charter schools should be "democratically governed."

This appears to be a bipartisan trend. As noted above, the Republican-authored ESSA repeatedly defers to locally elected school boards. It also ended NCLB's choice-based tutoring program (which districts detested), failed to voucherize Title I funding (thereby rejecting a priority of choice advocates), and even refused to reauthorize Washington, D.C.'s voucher program. At the state level, many suburban and rural GOP legislators who are quite fond of their local school districts have grown ambivalent about, and in some cases antagonistic toward, charter schools and private-school choice. Support for democratic control of schools has rallied.

School-choice advocates might see this as a serious, if discrete, political challenge — charters and vouchers are and will be in jeopardy as democratic control returns. Worse, this could be the revelation of a fundamental bug in the differentiation-and-choice mindset: Perhaps elected local boards — given the legitimacy they confer and the benefits they bring — are the proper default setting for American schooling.

Or it could simply be the case that a state-controlled system of local monopolies has proven evolutionarily robust because it solves many problems important to us. It permits state governments to live up to their constitutional obligations, facilitates equity and comparability, allows higher levels of government to expedite the implementation of reforms, enables schools to unify students and communities, allows for small-scale democracy, and so forth. 

But at the same time, we can't ignore its fundamental shortcomings. It disempowers families, hamstrings educators, stifles innovation, and raises costs, among other things. It has also produced nationwide results that place America far behind many of our international peers and urban results that are unconscionable. Nor can we look past the fact that the differentiation-and-choice movement has grown rapidly and consistently for a quarter-century and shows no signs of abating.

There are no easy answers. For conservative reformers, finding the way forward will require a fundamental rethinking of the goals and purposes of school differentiation and choice.


The right has probably underappreciated the meaning and repercussions of the charter and choice movements. Conservatives generally prefer gradual change, so we're unlikely to describe our policy preferences as dramatic departures from the current order. Moreover, these programs weren't orchestrated by the federal government and didn't happen swiftly; instead, state governments slowly developed these policies and adapted them over time.

Similarly, although many conservatives saw charter and choice initiatives as a response to the crisis of urban-district failure, these programs have virtually never been promoted as potential replacements of the district-based system. Instead, they've been framed as temporary lifeboats for kids assigned to the worst schools, laboratories to conduct experiments and share lessons with the district system, and small-scale competition to jolt the districts into better performance. Apart from the writings of free-market economists, very few have articulated the differentiation-and-choice approach as a delivery-model alternative to the district — much less as a refutation of the thinking undergirding America's century-old convention of public schooling run by exclusive-territory franchises.

But, properly understood, that is precisely what the choice-and-differentiation approach is. It is a fundamentally different way of conceptualizing, governing, operating, and assessing schools. Using the framework offered by Thomas Kuhn in his path-breaking The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, we can better understand the revolutionary nature of this approach, the types of challenges it currently faces, and how its advocates might proceed.

A half-century ago, Kuhn overturned the study of the history of science by arguing that disciplines don't progress solely through steady, incremental gains (as then believed) but often through revolutions. A range of experts and practitioners slowly come to realize the current "paradigm" in a particular field suffers foundational weaknesses, provoking a "crisis"; this opens the door to novel thinking, nontraditional experimentation, unexpected discoveries, and eventually the replacement of the orthodoxy with an entirely new paradigm. Though Structure studied and sought to inform the hard sciences, its lessons are more generalizable and have been fruitfully applied to a range of fields, including public policy.

Indeed, it is striking just how well Kuhn's analysis applies to education reformers' efforts to overturn their field's century-old conventions. For example, traditionalists try to solve the paradigm's existential crisis by applying traditional solutions (e.g., more money for failing district schools, state takeovers of districts); young skeptics question the field's assumption (perhaps the district system is the problem); new thinkers look to philosophy for new approaches (Chubb and Moe turn to Mill and Friedman); a new generation posits that the old rules no longer apply and offers unorthodox solutions (create non-district options); the resulting revolution alarms established experts who cannot renounce the orthodoxy (colleges of education, established scholars, and unions oppose choice programs); and so on.

But for our purposes here, the most important of Kuhn's concepts is that of "incommensurability." He argued that adherents of pre- and post-revolution paradigms talk past one another — "proponents of competing paradigms practice their trades in different worlds" — because they identify and engage different problems, establish different priorities, and define success in different ways. Moving from the physics of Aristotle to Newton to Einstein wasn't merely about making sense of new facts and measurements; it was also about asking different questions and using different measures.

A critically important consequence of this understanding is that pre-revolutionary paradigms do solve existing problems well. This is in no small part because they defined the problems and conceptualized the means of addressing them. In other words, advocates of the differentiation-and-choice approach need not be helplessly concerned that the local-monopoly approach neatly satisfies current state-level interpretations of school "uniformity," easily enables democratic control, facilitates swift technocratic reforms, provides for student assimilation, and possesses other strengths. These are the priorities the system established for itself.

A new paradigm, according to Kuhn, represents a "change in the rules governing the prior practice" and alters "some of the field's most elementary theoretical generalizations." It is "seldom or never just an increment to what is already known"; instead, it "requires the reconstruction of prior theory and the re-evaluation of prior fact." It is, then, a feature and not a bug of the choice movement's revolutionary nature that it seeks to create different (not "common") schools, that parent satisfaction (not standardized test scores) is the measuring stick, and that schools are assessed through individualized performance contracts (not a uniform statewide accountability system), and so on.

In fact, Kuhn's analysis even predicts the kind of setback the choice movement recently suffered with the resurgence of traditional approaches to democratic control. An emergent paradigm, Kuhn argued, is never able to answer all existing questions. The new paradigm's critics are able to show that, in some areas, "it is little superior to its traditional rival." As Kuhn explained, "[I]f a new candidate for paradigm had to be judged from the start by hard-headed people who examined only relative problem-solving ability, the sciences would experience very few major revolutions." The key is that the new approach answers well today's most pressing, confounding questions, and holds the promise of solving future challenges.

A shift in paradigms is a gradual process. It "is seldom completed by a single man and never overnight." The new model will eventually attract supporters who will develop the paradigm "to the point where hardheaded arguments can be produced and multiplied." Indeed, this is the very process differentiation-and-choice advocates and implementers have gone through, especially over the last decade. It was once thought that only a residence-based school-enrollment system could transparently, fairly, and efficiently handle student assignments. But cities have created student-application systems for networks of choice that allow families to fill out a single form and rank their preferred schools while a dispassionate algorithm matches students to schools. It was thought that school-specific performance contracts would lead to subjective, unjust school assessments, but authorizers have developed accountability frameworks that allow for cross-school comparability while preserving school differentiation. States are even on the verge of solving the "democratic control" problem for systems of differentiation and choice: Instead of having an elected board that runs all schools through a single government operator, an elected board could hold accountable an array of independent nonprofit operators.

These and many other micro-developments represent the evolutionary process of the post-revolution era. A broad and ever-expanding assortment of school-system actors are methodically working through the implications of the new paradigm. They are demonstrating not only that the new model is an improvement, but also that it is completely workable. That many traditionalists are not yet persuaded (and some will never be converted) isn't disqualifying. As Nobel Prize-winning physicist Max Planck, the originator of quantum theory, wrote, the revolutionary approach does not triumph by convincing its opponents but by succeeding such that the next generation grows up with the new paradigm.


For a quarter-century now, reformers have been slowly chipping away at the Progressive Era decisions that determined the shape of America's system of public schooling. Advocates, policymakers, and conservative reformers should understand charter-school and private-school choice initiatives as part of a paradigm shift, not merely as discrete programs.

Two important pieces of good news relate to the future prospects of this shift. First, with the state-level enabling legislation already in place, the bulk of today's attention has moved toward implementation. Countless individuals and organizations are working to make the differentiation-and-choice paradigm workable as a replacement system. Second, the vast majority of children today are growing up in states with charter schools, school-choice programs, or both. Many products of these differentiation-and-choice systems are already in key professional positions, policymaking and otherwise. Both of these facts suggest that a generational change — a paradigm shift — is underway.

On the other hand, we should be mindful of three possible inhibitions. First, unlike the sciences, where evidence is dispositive, education is firmly rooted in the realm of politics, where history, culture, and power also hold sway. That is, the shift to differentiation and choice is by no means certain; each step along the way will be politically contested. Many individuals and organizations have a stake in preserving the old paradigm. So advocates should not ease up, but must push forward with efforts to advance enabling legislation and the supporting policies and practices that make choice possible.

Second, advocates must expect that the current system will better solve — at least right now — a number of problems. These areas should be viewed as opportunities for differentiation-and-choice advocates to further build out the new model, not as reasons to concede to the old model. An exclusive-territory franchise does have natural advantages (not to mention a 100-year head start) in terms of economies of scale, democratic control, school assignments, transportation, facilities, and more. Advocates of the new approach must find ways to turn its current liabilities into strengths.

Third, conservatives must recognize that deferring to longstanding practices and institutions — which is among our instincts — is not always an asset when we see that a paradigm change is needed. The conservative authors of ESSA probably thought that deferring to traditional districts was principled policy, but the law's language will likely stand in the way of some differentiation-and-choice efforts. Likewise, the conservative mantra of "local control" may seem prudent, but it can also serve to shore up government monopolies.

The concepts outlined here, of incommensurability and paradigm shift, need not be limited to education reform; they are well suited to serve conservative reformers in other fields too. It is always worth asking whether the reforms we're proposing are simply addressing the symptoms, or whether they are aimed at the foundational decisions that have enabled the entrenchment of inappropriate government control. It is also worth investigating whether we fully and fairly appreciate the rationale for the current order, no matter how objectionable we find it. Sometimes the existing system solves an array of problems that make the system's preservation sensible. And sometimes we need to be willing to see ambitious proposals for reform not merely as radical change, but as truly revolutionary.

Andy Smarick is the Morgridge Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. 


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