America’s fragmented, decentralized, politicized, and bureaucratic system of education governance is a major impediment to school reform. In Education Governance for the Twenty-First Century: Overcoming the Structural Barriers to School Reform, a number of leading education scholars, analysts, and practitioners show that understanding the impact of specific policy changes in areas such as standards, testing, teachers, or school choice requires careful analysis of the broader governing arrangements that influence their content, implementation, and impact.

Education Governance for the Twenty-First Century comprehensively assesses the strengths and weaknesses of what remains of the old in education governance, scrutinizes how traditional governance forms are changing, and suggests how governing arrangements might be further altered to produce better educational outcomes for children.

Paul Manna, Patrick McGuinn, and their colleagues provide the analysis and alternatives that will inform attempts to adapt nineteenth and twentieth century governance structures to the new demands and opportunities of today.

* Copublished with the Brookings Institution and the Center for American Progress


Education Governance for the Twenty-First Century

What is Education Governance?

The greatest failing of education reformers in the U.S. this past quarter century has been their neglect of governance and structure—widely regarded either as politically impractical to touch or as too boring to get anyone interested. Yet the very structures and governance of our K–12 system often prevent other badly needed changes from taking place, enduring, or succeeding.

Recent months, however, have seen some cracks in the governance glacier with a spate of new books, articles, and conferences on the topic—meaning this set of reform challenges is no longer taboo to discuss or to tackle.

In an earnest effort to advance this crucial conversation, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute—in partnership with the Center for American Progress and the Brookings Institution Press—is pleased to present Education Governance for the Twenty-First Century: Overcoming the Structural Barriers to School Reform, edited by Paul Manna of the College of William and Mary and Patrick McGuinn of Drew University.

This important volume should be on the desk or bedside of every serious education reformer and policymaker in the land.

Featuring chapters by education scholars, analysts, and battle-scarred practitioners, it closely examines our present structures, identifies their failings, and offers some penetrating ideas for how governance might be done differently.

All serious reform victories begin with battles over ideas. In that spirit, we urge you to spend some quality time with this book. Overhauling our dysfunctional education-governance arrangements is a key priority for us at Fordham—and will inevitably loom among the hottest and most consequential issues for all serious reformers in the years to come.

The End of Exceptionalism in American Education: The Changing PoLong viewed as the purview of local school boards and superintendents, education governance has become more complicated—and politicized—in recent years. Executives at every level, including mayors and governors, have gotten into the act. So have judges, legislators, and federal officials. In this book, Teachers College professor Jeff Henig makes sense of the complex and intersecting governance structures that we have today. He explains the “whys” of this shift: While school boards and superintendents (what he calls “single-purpose institutions”) were once widely viewed as apolitical experts, concerns about the country’s global competitiveness have called their expertise into question and opened school systems to criticism. He also speculates that newly active outside organizations (i.e., reform groups) find the more distant decision-makers (what Henig dubs “general purpose” bodies) more amenable to their interests and policy goals—and thus have advocated for their increased involvement in education. Henig also offers perspective on how the various actors engage with policy: Analyzing data on legislative activity, he finds that Congress and statehouses micromanage in all manners, while courts have become more active on such issues as racial segregation and school finance. Looking forward, Henig offers reasons for both concern and optimism. With so many cooks in the kitchen, there may be little hope for policy coherence. Still and all, he concludes that...

Too many cooks
There are too many cooks in the education kitchen—and nobody's really in charge.

To anyone concerned with the state of America’s schools, one of the more alarming experiences of the past few decades has been seeing waves of important reforms and promising innovations crash on the rocks of failure. Why this persistent failure? One major cause is our flawed, archaic, and inefficient system for organizing and operating our public schools. To their discredit, education reformers in the U.S. this past quarter century have largely neglected the issues of governance and structure—widely regarded either as politically impractical to touch or as too boring to get anyone interested. Yet the very structures and governance of our K–12 system often prevent other badly needed changes from taking place, enduring, or succeeding.

Perhaps the biggest failing of the education system is its fragmented approach to making decisions; there are too many cooks in the education system, and nobody is really in charge. Despite America’s romantic attachment to local control, the reality is that the way it works today represents the worst of both worlds. On one hand, district-level power constrains individual schools; its standardizing, bureaucratic, and political force ties the hands of principals, keeping them from doing what is best for their pupils with regard to budget, staffing, and curriculum. On the other, local control is not strong enough to clear...


GadflyAfter attracting criticism for his description of how sequestration would impact schools (most notably, his comment that schools were already sending “pink slips” and that 40,000 teachers would be out of a job), Education Secretary Arne Duncan apologized for his “choice of words,” but emphasized that the cuts are still a big problem. Apology accepted—though we still miss the Arne Duncan who used to say that “doing more with less” was “the New Normal.”

After a school board election with a price tag in the millions, Los Angeles superintendent John Deasy’s job appears to be safe, at least for now. The board president, Deasy ally, and two-term incumbent Monica Garcia, won her district handily despite fierce opposition of the unions, though one-term incumbent and union ally Steven Zimmer won a close race versus a reform-y newcomer. Whether or not the reformers maintain a voting majority will be determined by a third race, which is headed to a runoff. Back to the trenches!

In an unprecedented move, Georgia governor Nathan Deal removed six members of the dysfunctional DeKalb County school board—and a federal judge upheld his right to do so. The case is likely to move on to the Georgia Supreme Court. But in the meantime, the search is on for six...


Education reformers who take on the important but massive issue of school governance often find themselves, like three captains at the helm of the same ship, attempting to navigate in different directions. The devolution model, piloted by Andy Smarick and Neerav Kingsland, embraces efforts to expand the role of charter organizations and dispenses with the district. The school-transformation model, put forward by Mass Insight, relies on third-party support to construct K–12 feeder patterns of allied schools; and the portfolio strategy, championed by the authors of this short CRPE paper, puts forward a system in which diverse, autonomous schools are governed by the district via performance contracts. Though these approaches seem to conflict, the authors of this paper contend that these proposals are actually complimentary variations on a theme: Government ought to steer (e.g., set goals, judge performance) but not row (i.e., provide). The success of the portfolio model, which creates exactly this kind of government, depends on the supply response: the presence of smart entrepreneurs with innovative ideas about education, folks who are willing to fund those ideas, and so on. And while the devolution and school-transformation models can provide the supply response (respectively, a marketplace for providers and networks of schools organized in feeder patterns), they need a government that allows schools to innovate but closes those that fail. Though this report takes the (not unexpected) perspective that the portfolio strategy charts the clearest course through these stormy seas, it is an important step...


Christopher D. Cerf, New Jersey Commissioner of Education:

McGuinn, Manna, and their fellow authors ask this fundamental question: Can the often-disappointing performance of our education system be explained in part by the way it’s organized? Are 14,000 separate districts ruled by elected school boards the best arrangement for 21st-century America? Their superb analysis shows how this long-standing form of education governance can present significant barriers to needed reform—and how to think about possible alternatives.

Michael W. Kirst, Professor Emeritus of Education and Business Administration, Stanford University, and President of the California State Board of Education:

A searing indictment of our fragmented and incoherent education governance system inherited from the 19th century. It illuminates the negative consequences of no one in charge. The book includes a stimulating array of promising alternatives for the contemporary governance context.

John E. Deasy, Superintendent, Los Angeles Unified School District:

This book provides a provocative look at how we govern our education system. The authors take a critical look at how we currently govern and identify concrete alternatives to ensure more youth are successful in school.

Carolyn J. Heinrich, Sid Richardson Professor of Public Affairs, Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, University of Texas at Austin:

This book deals with the elephant in the room in education reform—the governance challenges that are myriad, persistent, and obtrusive at multiple levels—and puts forward a broad range of arguments, evidence, and case examples culled from the brightest minds studying these issues today… The ideas and recommendations advanced in...

Yesterday was the first day of public testimony on Governor Kasich’s budget proposal before the Ohio House Finance Primary and Secondary Education Committee. Terry submitted testimony on behalf of the Fordham Institute, as did Students First and others.  Following is a good recap from Gongwer News Service:

Terry Ryan, vice-president for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, offered support for the budget, saying the funding offered through the formula would outpace that of almost every other comparable state in FY 14. He also offered suggestions for use in the budget or as the subjects of future legislation.

Firstly, he said all dollars should follow students to the schools they actually attend, but funding is still stuck in categorical programs and flows to the district but not necessarily the building attended.

Mr. Ryan also called for annual academic return on investment reporting for all public schools, both districts and charters. "Just as some districts are more productive than others so are some schools and these should be acknowledged and better understood," he said.

More mandates related to regulations, laws and contract should be eliminated if they force funds to be spent in certain ways in all schools regardless of student characteristics. He said the flexibilities of the Cleveland Plan should be expanded to all districts.

Like the administration, Mr. Ryan said the state should move away from hold harmless provisions and guarantees "that provide funding to districts for phantom students."...

Housing projects
Well-intentioned policy can do incalculable harm.
Photo by paul goyette

As a college freshman in an introductory sociology class, I was assigned the book There Are No Children Here by Alex Kotlowitz. This story of two young boys trying to survive one of Chicago’s most impoverished and dangerous housing projects is absolutely heart-wrenching.

I won’t forget the book’s emotional grip, but equally influential to my intellectual development was the policy and political back story that explained how the boys’ toxic surroundings came to be.

Nearly two decades later, I’m still chastened by the book’s central lesson: A government policy developed by mostly benevolent leaders hoping to improve the lives of the disadvantaged—in this case, by razing old, low-income, ostensibly decaying neighborhoods in favor of gigantic public-housing skyscrapers—did incalculable harm to those it was designed to help.

This has been on my mind in recent weeks, as the national school-closure conversation has flared. Much of that conversation is familiar, but one assertion made by critics, namely that school closures destabilize entire neighborhoods, raises a question that hasn’t been discussed nearly enough. And though some might wave it away as irrelevant or worse, the lessons of the Kotlowitz book force me to take it seriously:

Can a bad school be good for a neighborhood?

Might there be compelling civic or social reasons for...


GadflyIn a futile effort to counter the influence of test-preparation companies, New York City’s education department changed part of the test it administers to four-year-olds to determine whether or not they are gifted and talented. For parents who cannot afford to send their child to one of the city’s myriad private schools, a coveted and scarce seat in a public school gifted program is the best start they could give to their children. While many lament the unjust advantage that students with access to test-prep programs obtain, the true tragedy is the dearth of suitable options for all of the gifted children. For more, listen to this week’s Gadfly Show.

Eliciting a keen sense of deja vu, this year's AP Report to the Nation—College Board's tracking of AP course-taking patterns and exam pass rates—offers the same three takeaways as last year's report: Participation rates in the AP are fast on the rise (up 2 percentage points since last year and 14 since last decade). So are AP exam passing rates: up 1.5 percentage points since 2011 and 7 points since 2002. Still, minority involvement flounders, with less than a third of "qualified" Latinos and African American (as decided by PSAT scores) enrolling in an AP course. Expect further unpacking of what these numbers may mean for Common Core implementation, college-remediation courses, and more next week.

The congressionally mandated Equity and...