East Harlem may seem an unlikely place to inspire international education reform. And yet . . . “It is here that many of Britain’s school reforms find their inspiration, “ noted a recent glowing Times of London report on New York’s District 4. “It is here that you can see the future and decide whether it works or not,” enthused the Times, referring to the district’s policy of allowing parents to choose schools for their children, and of closing down schools that do not attract clients.

In fact, British enthusiasm for education reform has outrun its American model. Two years ago, the government of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher pushed startling, radical reforms through Parliament. As in East Harlem, the 1988 law gives British parents the right to choose schools, a right of which most American families can only dream. More ambitiously yet, the law alms by stages to free publicly supported schools from their subservience to local political and educational authorities.

The British reforms authorize the establishment of “grant maintained” schools, commonly known as “opt-out” schools. The process works as follows: Parents at any state school can propose to opt out. A referendum is held, and if the majority vote for opting out, the school is separated from the local (but nationally funded) education authority. A parent-dominated governing body takes charge of decisions on everything from staffing to the new science lab. An opt-out school may accept any student within the district. The school gets a lump-sum check straight from London, its size determined by how many students it attracts and by how much the local authorities had been spending per pupil under the old system. The national government then reduces its subsidy to the school district correspondingly.

The reformers hope that schools freed from bureaucratic controls will be more vigorous and creative, and that allowing parents to choose will encourage good schools and drive the bad ones out of business.

An atmosphere of general emergency helped make the bill possible. British schools, like our own, had slumped badly since World War 11. Nevertheless, the Thatcher bill was greeted with horror by the educational establishment. Local governing councils, Labor and Tory alike, opposed it: Education comprises up to half of their spending. Unionized teachers threatened mass resignations. The Guardian, the editorial voice of public sector entrenchment, called the idea “reactionary, divisive, and wickedly irresponsible.” Thatcher’s own Education Department dragged its feet. Unexpectedly perhaps to an American, the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church lined up with the opposition.

Opponents have played rough. In Brent, black parents were told that opt-out schools would discriminate against them. Elsewhere, parents have complained of threatening visits to their homes before ballots. The week Dartford parents were set to mail in ballots, the Tory-run council sent out a similar-looking questionnaire; if not enough parents had known which form was which, the opt-out proposal would have failed. A Local Government Information Office also fights opt-out referenda through pamphlets, billboards, and newspaper ads financed by taxpayer money.

The guerrilla warfare continues even after a successful opt-out vote. Bolton’s and Tameside’s Labor-run councils have ordered local agencies not to sell cleaning, maintenance, or meal services to the newly independent schools. Birmingham bars students at opted-out schools from taking part in vocational seminars or using the municipal pool or study centers. The Sutton local council lobbied London to cut the lump-sum check of the opted-out Wilson School by $150,000.

Nonetheless, the opt-out schools are coming along, if slowly. Though so far fewer than 1 percent of British schools have opted out, applications to do so are up 40 percent this year. They are nearly fully staffed, though Britain suffers a severe teacher shortage. There were no mass teacher resignations. Because as much as 25 percent of school funds had previously been absorbed by the district bureaucracy, opt-out schools have more to spend on books, equipment, and the like.

Better yet, schools have more leeway to direct their money to the kinds of spending they find most important, instead of waiting for directives to trickle out of a local authority office. Bankfield High School hired six extra teachers, as well as a full- and a part-time support staffer, to give teachers more time to prepare lessons. Claremont High School refurbished four science labs and built a wood shop. The Baverstock School in depressed Birmingham has about $570,000 extra a year to spend, a 25 percent increase. It has more than doubled spending on books, spent $49,000 on computers, and added a hot breakfast program. Spending to upgrade textbooks is a favorite reform: The Hendon School, for example, has increased spending on books by 58 percent since opting out, and quadrupled its spending on classroom equipment. Bankfield increased textbook outlays per pupil from $53 to $171.

As we know from studies in America, extra spending does not guarantee extra learning. What most excites headmasters and teachers is the new freedom schools enjoy. “Once a decision is made, those involved in making the decision are here,” says John McIntosh, headmaster of the opted-out London Oratory School. “We don’t have a paper chase around the local education council for months. And then you find at the end of it they say the papers have been lost and you have to start again.”

Mr. McIntosh says he used to spend hours at arcane planning sessions at the district office headquarters. Then back at the school, local bureaucrats would swoop down like lords issuing orders and demanding obedience. Now department heads at his school have direct authority to purchase equipment, and the school makes its own arrangements for repairs and the like with local contractors. The local authority formerly took up to three years to replace equipment. (Perhaps they had received their training from the New York City custodian’s union.) Now when a window is broken, it can be fixed the same day. “Local education authorities,” he notes acidly, “are a tier of administration that serve no useful purpose at all.”

Opt-outs survived an important test in June when the nation’s high court upheld parents’ right to choose, overruling a decision by a judge who had ruled that allowing the Beechen Cliff School near Bath to opt out would illicitly disrupt local schooling. In some ways the momentum is accelerating. The departure of some schools concentrates the costs of supporting a local bureaucracy on the remaining authority-run schools, heightening the incentive for more to opt out.

The political equation is less clear. The Grant Maintained Schools Trust, the government body that coordinates opt-outs, does not offset local education-authority lobbying; it encourages gradual opting out by a few schools each year, but avoids controversy or confrontation. The union-allied Labor Party has pledged to restore the local education-authority monopoly if it returns to power, and many parents have thus decided to postpone opt-out campaigns until after the election, lest their efforts be undone by a Prime Minister Neil Kinnock. And now the Conservatives are backing an even more strictly uniform national curriculum that threatens to make schools carbon copies of each other—although choice is meaningless if schools are all alike.

There are some other difficulties with the British system. The opting-out procedure is rather burdensome for parents, who must take the initiative to organize what is essentially a new small business, and then run it, at least as trustees. And while there is much evidence that parents want to be able to choose their children’s schools, most probably do not want to run them. The other side of that coin is that the teachers have much less responsibility for setting the course of the opted-out school than do teachers in, say, East Harlem, where teachers are invited to take leadership roles. Remotivating demoralized teachers was a major factor in East Harlem’s success. In Britain, the Thatcher government still titillates itself with teacher-bashing, so that many teachers view opting out as a threat, not an opportunity.

At the moment, however, Britain is miles ahead. An opt-out program is a logical next step to follow school choice: It bypasses the education bureaucracy, rather than trying to reform it. Mrs. Thatcher found the way and had the force of character to do it: Will we catch up?


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