Tony Blair is reforming the British education system by creating “specialist schools” modeled on U.S. magnet and charter schools, writes Paul Hill in Policy Review. Hill, a professor at the University of Washington’s Center for Reinventing Education, suggests the U.S. could learn from the Brits about how to change the status quo.
In education, Blair adopted the “Nixon goes to China” strategy, taking initiatives no one would have expected from the leader of his party. Rather than rejecting Margaret Thatcher’s moves to devolve funding to schools and weaken unions and local education authorities (read school districts), he built on them. Rather than pandering to those traditional bastions of his Labour Party, Blair moved them out of the way so schools could be redesigned around the hopes of families and the demands of the world economy. To date, no U.S. Democrat interested in education has booked a Blair-style “trip to China,” though some will look at travelogues.
Blair’s New Labour Party “started with the argument that schooling was too important to be left to a protected monopoly,” Hill writes.
When opponents said principals couldn’t handle responsibility for funds and teacher hiring, Blair said, yes they could, and proved it. Similarly, they argued, the ablest people would avoid teaching jobs if pay were linked to performance. No, they wouldn’t, was the answer; teacher numbers and quality would improve. Schools would lose their focus and pander to families if parents could choose; no, they wouldn’t. School segregation would get worse; no, it wouldn’t. If local school boards lost control over schools, children would no longer learn about democracy and tolerance; yes, they would.
Blair listened to the teachers’ union, but didn’t let them veto reforms. He provided leadership. Hill asks if Democrats can do the same.