Publications / Policy Brief

Do-Something Congress No. 10: Fighting Inequality by Reinventing America’s Schools

By and / 5.15.2019

Progressives are rightly concerned about inequality, but some overlook the crucial role that underperforming public schools play in perpetuating poverty and inequality in America. The poor quality of many school systems is a serious impediment to social mobility for children from low-income and minority families, who can’t easily pick up and move to communities with good schools. The number of students taking college remediation classes has soared, and too many students graduate high school underprepared to enter either college or the workforce.

First-rate schools are key to delivering on America’s core promise of equal opportunity. That’s true for U.S. students everywhere – not just for kids trapped in poor schools in poor communities. In international comparisons, even students from America’s best suburban school districts consistently score below students from other advanced countries in Asia and Europe.

America’s public education system was designed for the Industrial Era. The centralized, bureaucratic approach that we inherited from the 20th century no longer works for the majority of America’s students. We need a new model, and fortunately one is emerging from cities that have embraced profound systems change, including New Orleans, Denver, Washington, D.C., and Camden, N.J. All have experienced rapidly improving student outcomes as a result.

These four cities are building 21st century school systems, founded upon the four pillars of school autonomy, accountability for performance, diversity of school designs, and parental choice. Essentially, 21st century school systems treat many of their public schools like charter schools, even if they call them “innovation schools,” “partnership schools,” or “Renaissance schools.”

Although transforming our K-12 education system to meet the needs of the modern era is primarily the responsible of state and local governments, Washington can play an important catalytic role by creating incentives for change. In particular, Congress can create financial incentives for states that strengthen charter authorizing and for districts that create autonomous schools, hold schools accountable for performance, and replace failing schools.

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  1.  David Osborne, Reinventing America’s Schools: Creating a 21st Century Education System (New York, NY: Bloomsbury, 2017), 1-2.
  2. “Federal Charter Schools Program (CPS) and Authorizers,” National Association of Charter School Authorizers, at
  4. David Osborne and Emily Langhorne, “Texas has Ambitious Plans to Transform Urban Schools,” U.S. News & World Report, Apr. 13, 2018, at schools.