Changing the Conversation in Education Law: Political Geography and Virtual Schooling

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JAMES E. RYAN, FIVE MILES AWAY, A WORLD APART. Oxford University Press (2010).

PAUL E. PETERSON, SAVING SCHOOLS: FROM HORACE MANN TO VIRTUAL LEARNING. Harvard University Press (2010).

ABSTRACT

In Five Miles Away, A World Apart, James E. Ryan concludes that the educational reforms of the hour, school accountability and school choice, will exacerbate rather than undermine the systematic educational advantages enjoyed by wealthier Americans. Paul Peterson, in his Saving Schools, argues that increasingly centralizing American schools have become sufficiently centralized that, as a labor-intensive industry, few productivity gains are available from governance reform, even as demand escalates for the customization of education to individual needs.

Both volumes therefore pin their hopes for change upon political geography - the relationship between people and educational institutions in space. Ryan argues that changing demographic trends with respect to wealth and race create a window for interest convergence between whites and minorities and between rich and poor. Peterson concludes his volume with a fascinating chapter on virtual education, which untethers education from institutions like school districts that are based upon physical location. I suggest that virtual schooling also offers important, and unsettling, possibilities when analyzed in Ryan's interest-convergence framework. This is true particularly because of the likely impact online education will have upon the religious-school sector.

I. INTRODUCTION

Two recent books- Fi ve Miles Away, A World Apart, by James E. Ryan, and Saving Schools, by Paul Peterson- call for "changing] the conversation" about American education.1 This shared imperative is instructive given that the two volumes diverge in agenda, intellectual frame, and strategy of inquiry. Ryan focuses upon the perennial inequities of American education, where, still in 2012, prosperous white children and less privileged black students living nearly as neighbors inhabit wildly disparate educational worlds. Peterson, although also distressed by inequity, focuses primarily upon low and inconsistent overall educational quality. Five Miles Away begins with Brown v. Board,2 and stresses institutions. Saving Schools begins earlier, with Horace Mann, and gives most of its attention to personalities and ideas. Ryan writes as the leading K- 12 education law expert in the United States; Peterson is one the most distinguished political scientists writing in the field.

The two accounts nevertheless overlap substantially. Both devote considerable attention to issues of education law and of implementation: to the failure, after Brown, to integrate American schools; to school finance cases in state court and their ambiguous impact on equality and equity; to accountability regimes like No Child Left Behind;3 and to school choice. Both detect structural similarities among all these reforms that lead them to doubt that any will fundamentally improve American education or change its educational conversation. Those doubts are rooted in analytic arguments which considerably advance our understanding of education law. As I discuss in Part II of this Essay, Ryan develops the important argument that school accountability and school choice reforms are structured to preserve, not mitigate, the educational advantages of wealthier groups. Part III analyzes Peterson's conclusion that the long centralization trend in American education has reached the point where, in a labor-intensive industry, few productivity gains are available from governance reform, even as demand intensifies for the customization of education to individual needs.

Neither author, however, concludes that American education is intractable. Indeed, both take the opposite position. And, strikingly, both argue that when America's educational conversation does change, those changes will be rooted in political geography, that is, in changes to the relationships between people and educational institutions in space. …