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“While Nero Fiddled…” Igniting the New Education Revolution

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What does Nero have to do with education reform? Well to start with, it’s likely that fewer than 30 percent of students, let alone adults in the nation, would know precisely from where that infamous phrase comes. In fact, ongoing NAEP tests in history and civics reveal inch-deep knowledge of world events and even literary references.

Second, the allusion of Nero fiddling is quite fitting in the quest for better educational outcomes today. While there’s evidence that Nero couldn’t have been fiddling when the great fire of Rome 64 AD swept through the city, (fiddles weren’t invented at the time) he was reportedly gone, or at least out of reach, as his people suffered. Thus the Nero rome burningphrase has come to mean a dereliction of duties, or at least, ignoring a problem when it’s right in one’s face.

Over the past few weeks, the nation has continued to witness a number of seemingly unrelated but very connected events that point to a real Nero problem, about which all but a few seem relatively unaware, or perhaps unwilling to do something about. In short, we are fiddling while Rome burns. I mean:

  • As we write, the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program renewal still hasn’t found itself in the text of the Omnibus budget Congress is supposed to act on! While education scholarships or savings accounts are on the rise, the fight to preserve or grow school voucher programs still faces either political or legal battles brought on by apathetic opponents who see no problem with the status quo or unions who feel threatened, despite widespread popular support for providing poor students with great options, too.


  • The percentage of students earning college degrees still hovers right at 40 percent. Yes, candidates, we do need welders, too, but everyone should have the opportunity to make that decision, and not be forced to settle for less because their schools did not expect more or could not provide for them.


  • The number of charter schools in this nation being created has dropped from roughly 13 percent every year to 8 percent, because advocates are outnumbered by opponents, whose presence ensures only controlled and highly regulated growth of new public schools in most new laws.


The good news is that President Obama last week signed the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (once and now former NCLB) that restores state and local authority over education but also maintains accountability measures at the federal level to ensure we never fall back (hopefully) to a time where districts could simply rise or fall with no reward or sanction. Enter the states – again – whose leadership in the 1990s led to the promising (though limited) choice opportunities that exist today.

From historic school choice gains in 1990 when Gov. Tommy Thompson (R-WI) partnered with State Rep. Polly Williams (D-WI) to create vouchers, to Gov. Rudy Perpich’s (DFL-MN) pioneering first charter law, to Gov. William Weld (R-MA) codifying the first rigorous state standards, great things happen when we elect and empower state leaders who understand the problem and are not cow-towed by the status quo in forging solutions.

We are reminded of the purpose of the education reform revolution by John Chubb, an intellectual giant and thought leader who recently passed from this earth. John, a founding CER Board member argued convincingly in Politics, Markets and America’s Schools (with Stanford’s Terry Moe) that a system that is impervious to change cannot fundamentally improve unless we change that system. They set forth a new structural framework that would begin to take root in some charter and choice laws, though the purity of the idea is still rare:

The crucial difference is that direct democratic control of the schools–the very capacity for control, not simply its exercise–would essentially be eliminated. Most of those who previously held authority over the schools would have their authority permanently with drawn, and that authority would be vested in schools, parents, and students. Schools would be legally autonomous: free to govern themselves as they want, specify their own goals and programs and methods, design their own organizations, select their own student bodies, and make their own personnel decisions. Parents and students would be legally empowered to choose among alternative schools, aided by institutions designed to promote active involvement, well-informed decisions, and fair treatment.”

Perhaps had the authors of the Washington state charter school law considered this studied concept, they may not have found themselves with an unconstitutional law. Perhaps had the justices been privy to the research behind Politics, Markets and America’s Schools, they might have found a way to at least recommend a new path rather than dismiss the law outright.

As we’ve said since CER’s inception, laws matter. So do principles. Which is why our leaders, board and supporters make it their business to know the ideas behind the policies they advocate, and the principles that can help us understand whether those policies will even achieve the goal of true local, and parent, empowerment.

While our proverbial educational Rome often seems overwhelming, we must stop the fiddling and do more than just work to put the fires out. We have to ignite a new education revolution, and make it fireproof! We can do that by creating laws that provide for educators to have maximum flexibility to innovate schools, and giving parents and students freedom to engage with a growing variety of learning options from pre-K through higher education.

We can impact the trajectory of laws that give life to such ideals, but not without your help and support. As you can imagine, sustaining an organization that works to disrupt the status quo is a difficult task. We need your help, no matter how small, to launch new efforts in the New Year.

It’s easy, and it’s important. Please click here to make your financial contribution to the Center today. 

Jeanne Allen, Founder and President Emeritus