Breakout #1: District and State Partnership – Boon or Detriment for Entrpreneurship?

May 12, 2010

Resolved: Entrepreneurs and Systems must Partner to Achieve Widespread Improvement

This afternoon, a spirited oxford-style debate took place to examine this resolution.  Under the direction of moderator Mashea Ashton, CEO of the Newark Charter School Fund, the panel examined whether partnerships with districts and states were necessary for the success of entrepreneurial education organizations and ideas.  Panelists discussed whether partnerships helped spur further innovation or whether they lead to reversion to the status quo.

Sitting on the relatively more comfortable side of the debate, the team in support of the resolution, not surprisingly, held the majority vote of the audience from the outset.  Nevertheless, in addition to compelling opening statements, John King, Co-Founder of Roxbury Prep Academy and Senior Deputy Commissioner for P-12 Education for the NY State Department of Education and Chris Gabrieli Co-Founder and Chairman of the Massachusetts 2020 Foundation were not above resorting to audience flattery to ensure their continued success.  They opened by outlining five key constraints entrepreneurs face if they attempt to achieve change without partnership: limited scale (only 3% of NY students are enrolled in charter schools), limited reach into rural districts, the challenge of sustainability, limited pace of growth relative to the great need, and fidelity to universal opportunity for children (all children means all children).

Arguing against the resolution, Rick Hess, Director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute and Ellen Moir, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of the New Teacher Center, had a more challenging road.  Recognizing that the debate was an intellectual exercise and meant to challenge our thinking, not reflect the reality of Rick and Ellen’s daily work, they bravely tackled the more uncomfortable role of very honest and open discussion of the barriers to successful partnership.  These include the difficulties of working within a system which incents anti-entrepreneurial action, has an ever changing leadership roster and set of priorities, lacks buy in and ownership around implementation of innovations (together with a tremendous deficit of entrepreneurial minded human capital on the ground) and has few proof points of successful change to offer.   For those examples we might point to Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein’s work. They argued that they represented instances of takeover by entrepreneurs, not true partnership.

By the close of the session, Rick and Ellen successfully swayed a few people to their side (oops, did we really mean to do that?!).  Tom Boasberg, Superintendent of Denver Public Schools offered some additional commentary and urged entrepreneurs to serve the system as thought partners in building solutions and as active participants in changing and developing policy.   In the real world, the middle ground of today’s debate is where we spend our time.  What we came away with is the reminder of what drives all of our work: kids need adults to put them first.  As we’ve heard in other sessions today, we don’t have time to waste.  We have to move as quickly as we can to serve as many as we can.  The panel also left us with the reminder that we cannot ignore our failures.  Entrepreneurs and systems have both run bad schools.  We must be brutally honest with ourselves, wherever we sit in this movement, about the progress we’ve made and the road we have yet to travel.