Since the 1980s, a bipartisan education-reform movement has attempted to improve America’s schools. Though reformers secured victories here and there, their successes remain small and incremental. Teachers’ unions, school districts, and allied politicians have weakened, watered down, or otherwise blocked what the reformers have tried to accomplish. The basic model of American public education remains intact, as President Barack Obama’s Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, conceded when he described public education as “broken” and called on Americans to “fix it.”
In a sobering new book, The Politics of Institutional Reform, Stanford University political scientist Terry M. Moe shows how “vested interests”—from teachers’ unions to school administrators—limit the prospects for reform. School boards and superintendents, whose power and prestige hinge on how schools are organized and run, exploit America’s political institutions to block change. To make his case, Moe studies New Orleans before and after Hurricane Katrina, showing how education politics work when entrenched interests hold power—and what education policy might look like in different hands. In New Orleans, as in much of the country, established interests had long prevented reformers’ efforts. Prior to Katrina, the city’s public school system was a poster child of American education gone wrong: low graduation rates, dismal student test performance, and incompetent administration. Equipment—computers, air conditioners, musical instruments—was regularly stolen. Millions of public dollars were unaccounted for. Corruption was so widespread that the FBI opened an office in the district’s administrative building. Despite manifest failings, the system lumbered along.