Buffalo is a city full of hope that newly installed Superintendent Kriner Cash can provide leadership in a district that is badly in need of sweeping reform. With new receivership powers over the district’s most chronically underperforming schools, Cash has unprecedented abilities to unilaterally rewrite policy, restructure schools, and to redesign curriculum.
Mismanagement and poor decisions around resource allocation have dogged the district for the last two decades, prompting some activists and education reformers to advocate for the hiring of MBAs rather than doctorates in education to run schools and to staff the bulk of the central office. Professionals with training in management will be more attentive to operating metrics, the quality of service delivery, and performance benchmarks rather than on pedagogy, advocates argue.
“We have a stifling bureaucracy that is dominated by political union bosses. What the district needs are innovators who have absolutely no experience in education — who bring outside the box ideas from the private sector,” explains a former board member who asked not to be named. “We need management minded people with turnaround plans.”
Those policy changes would attract national acclaim. Breaking the union stranglehold that has opposed even incremental reforms will allow for new innovation in an industry that has been dominated by a centralized public monopoly since the 1930s. The mass production, mass standardization model of public education must be reinvented.
Public education should be tailored to fit the precise needs of every student, by specializing curriculum offerings and service delivery. The only way to do it at an affordable scale is to create the market structures that encourage innovation and specialization. When schools compete for students, they will specialize curriculum and service offerings around the unique needs of given subsegments of the student body. That kind of specialization will allow a better education for every child and a more meaningful experience for each family.
Equipping district schools with MBAs will posture them to compete in this marketplace for K-12 education. Whether this marketplace emerges in the form of an explicit voucher or in the form of a transfer payment system based largely on per capita enrollment, the competitive incentive structures must be clear and cause precisely the behavior that we want to encourage (that is, the customization of services and the specialization of curriculum offerings around the interests of self-selected subsegments of the student population).
In that environment — if district schools are to survive at all — they must be led by management professionals rather than by union controlled bureaucrats. Otherwise, consumers will vote with their feet and opt for parochial, charter, private, independent, boarding, and suburban schools. The creative destruction of the market will allow the best options to prevail and bad options will disappear.