Where Public Education Still Works — and Why

There is good news in American education. The first piece of good news is that educational choice — i.e., giving parents more control over where their children attend school — is growing. And a recent Wisconsin Supreme Court decision in favor of school choice will only add to the momentum.

The second piece of good news is that even when school choice is not an option, some educational leaders are willing to put their reputations on the line to improve the public education system. Not surprisingly, these mavericks are about as welcome to the entrenched educational system as proponents of school choice.

One such "unwelcome" educator is Anthony Trujillo, superintendent of the Ysleta School District in El Paso, TX. A recent cover story by Tyce Palmaffy for Policy Review, a bi-monthly magazine published by the Heritage Foundation, has described the problems now facing Trujillo.

When Trujillo was brought out of retirement to Ysleta six years ago, the school district was facing a crisis. Sitting as it does right next to Mexico, El Paso is a city of immigrants. Forty percent of Ysleta's students enter school with limited English proficiency. Ninety percent of the district's students are Hispanic in a state where only 62 percent of Hispanic students pass all three of the state's proficiency tests, versus 85 percent of whites.

Years of declining scores in one of the poorest school districts in the country left the school board desperate. They called in Trujillo and gave him unusually broad latitude to implement his policies. He did just that and the results have been remarkable.

Unfortunately, those policies have outraged many on the school board who now regret having turned over so much control and would like to kick him out.

Anyone with Trujillo's record of success in raising educational performance — and, not coincidentally, angering the educational establishment — has to be doing something right. What are his principles? According to a December editorial in the Sacramento Bee: "standards, accountability and a demonstrated belief that school systems are run for the benefit of children, not the people who work in them."

Standards. Trujillo's stress on education has worked. Between 1993 and 1998, Ysleta students who were able to pass the state reading test increased from 63 percent to 89 percent, and those passing the math test grew from 41 percent to 86 percent.

According to Palmaffy, "this year, Ysleta became the first of Texas' eight largest school districts to achieve ërecognized' status. That means that at least 80 percent of Ysleta students overall and 80 percent or more of students in each of five subgroups — black, Hispanic, white, Asian and economically disadvantaged — passed the TAAS (the state test)."

Accountability. At his first meeting with the district's principals, Trujillo noted that the principals had all received satisfactory evaluations while the students continued their downward slide. "This is the strangest district I've been in," he told them. "It has the dumbest students and the brightest adults." His solution was to switch all principals, and eventually teachers as well, to one-year contract renewals rather than the usual three-year renewals. It was a not-so-veiled threat to shape up or ship out. Within five years, about two-thirds of the principals and teachers had left. Those who remained were given broad discretion in running their schools. Now principals and their staffs get multi-year contracts only when their schools have been judged "recognized" or "exemplary."

Benefiting Children. Trujillo also established a scaled-down system of school choice by creating an open enrollment policy in the district. Students can move to any school in the district if there is room. Moreover, budget policy was changed so that the money would travel with the student.

Trujillo was also able to take advantage of a Texas law that allows inter-district transfers. Last year, his district was able to attract some 2,000 non-resident students. That additional money has helped Trujillo pay for some much needed renovations.

Finally, Trujillo established several magnet schools that help students on a career path begin to specialize in what they want to do in the future.

The amazing thing about Trujillo's success is that none of these ideas are really remarkable. Notions like maintaining high standards, accountability and ensuring that a business exists to serve its customers (in Trujillo's case, students) are employed in the business world every day. They only seem remarkable because Trujillo has implemented these same notions in the educational world.

People in the business world would welcome a CEO who came in and put these principles to work. In Trujillo's case, however, they may get him fired.

But that's the difference between business and public education. And maybe that tells us why business works so well in America and public education doesn't.

The National Center for Policy Analysis is a public policy research institute founded in 1983 and internationally known for its studies on public policy issues.