Rethinking school governance

everyone who cares about revitalizing American primary-secondary education
senses that many of its fundamental structures are archaic and its governance
arrangements dysfunctional. Yet I’ll wager a nice dinner that this issue never
even surfaced at last week’s “big ideas” festival in the Aspen aerie. For any
effort to raise, much less address, the challenges of governance and structure typically
leads either to a glazed look on the visage of the audience (“governance” is
such a wonky topic, best consigned to civics courses, while we pay attention to
sexy issues like vouchers and merit pay) or else to eye-rolling and
shoulder-shrugging (because even if structure and governance pose problems,
it’s “politically hopeless” to do anything about them). In the background, too,
is our knee-jerk obeisance to “local control of education,” whatever that may
mean in 2011.

not to confront the failings of structure and governance in public education in
our time is to accept the glum fact that the most earnest and urgent of our
other “reform” efforts cannot gain enough traction to make a big dent in
America’s educational deficit, to produce a decent supply of quality
alternatives to the traditional monopoly, or to defeat the adult interests that
typically rule and benefit from that monopoly.

main structures of U.S. public education date to the nineteenth century, when
individual towns paid essentially all the costs of operating whatever schools
they had, and to the progressive era, when it was deemed important to “keep
education out of politics” so as to avoid the taint of patronage and
partisanship. Better to entrust its supervision to expert professionals and independent,
nonpartisan school boards that would surely attract the community’s leaders to
tend this crucial civic function. Don’t let the mayor or aldermen sink their
grubby mitts into school affairs. Don’t entwine public education too closely
with other governmental functions and agencies, either, lest it be

the same thing happened at the state level, as states began to carve a role for
themselves in the provision and regulation of public education. The New York
Board of Regents launched back in 1784, though at first its assignment dealt
mainly with higher education. Massachusetts got its state board of
education—focused on primary-secondary schooling—in 1837. The very first
secretary of that board was, of course, Horace Mann, oft termed the father of
public education in the United State.

Yet not to confront the failings of
structure and to accept the glum fact that the most
earnest and urgent of our other “reform” efforts cannot gain enough
traction to make a big dent in America’s educational deficit...


early state boards, and almost all of those that followed (nearly every state
now has one), were intended to be at least one step removed if not entirely
divorced from messy electoral politics. Most are appointed—usually by the
governor—for fixed terms and are separate from the rest of state government.
Half of them appoint a state superintendent of schools (or “commissioner of
education”) who is nearly always a career educator.

states bear formal responsibility for educating their citizens—the wording
varies, but a typical example is Ohio’s constitutional charge to its
legislature to “secure a thorough and efficient system of common schools
throughout the state”—all but Hawaii have opted to deliver schooling through “local
education agencies,” also known as school districts. These vary greatly in size
and number—Illinois has 1,100 of them, Maryland just twenty-four. Most are
coterminous with a county or municipal entity (town, village, etc.) though
almost never are they directly governed by that entity.

four major problems with this set-up should by now begin to reveal themselves.

First, as the decades have passed, “local”
has gradually become a less accurate way to describe, much less to organize,
public education in America. Most school funding now comes from state and
federal sources. (The “local” share varies but on average is 43 percent.) So
does an ever-larger amount of regulation. In a mobile society, few people live
out their days in the town where they were born. Many cross municipal borders
every day and plenty of families move to different cities or states. A growing
number of children now attend charter schools operated by regional or national
firms with non-local brand names (e.g. KIPP, National Heritage, Achievement
First), and a growing number of pupils now absorb at least part of the
curriculum from online providers at the state or national (and, in time,
planetary) level.

new realities raise some interesting questions: Why is sixth grade math in
Portland, Maine different from that in Portland, Oregon? And what does it mean
for Cincinnati, say, to be responsible for educating a child who is enrolled in
the Ohio Virtual Academy or in a charter school operated by a New York firm and
supervised by a Toledo-based authorizer?

Second, the dream of keeping education
out of politics has turned into a nightmare. There may still be corners of the
countryside where community leaders with no agendas of their own or axes to
grind or interest groups to enrich or political careers to advance get elected
to boards of education. But in far too many places, today’s school boards
consist of an unwholesome mix of aspiring politicians, teacher-union puppets,
individuals with some cause or scheme they yearn to inflict on everyone’s kids,
and ex-employees of the system with scores to settle.

the same thing happens at the state level, often with an additional dose of
partisan politics. And as for placing disinterested professionals in charge,
many do indeed have formal credentials that attest to the degrees they earned
in education schools, but far too many of them are beholden to the status quo,
to its adult interests, and to the conventional wisdom in an enterprise that
urgently needs a fundamental makeover. (Unfortunately, those who upend apple
carts often find themselves seeking new jobs. Just consider the case of
Michelle Rhee.)

Third, keeping primary-secondary
education separate from the rest of the public sector now does more harm than
good. Splitting its operation and policymaking off from early childhood and
postsecondary education is obvious folly. For instance, individual academic
records cannot be tracked from one level of education to the next. And it is
even harder to ensure that those systems harmonize their expectations and
minimize duplication.

is also folly to wall education off from juvenile justice, health care, social
services, employment services, and the rest. Kids are not compartmentalized. It
should be easy to coordinate what they need to grow up well—at least to coordinate
the portions for which government is responsible.

Fourth, our inherited structures
presuppose a quasi-monopoly over K-12 education—“one best system” that delivers
essentially the same instructional package to every child in every neighborhood
and takes little account of individual differences or preferences, much less
the potential of competing providers. In short, the public education system assumes
that one size does fit all. Wealthy families have always been able to buy their
way out of that system via private schools. Some middle-class folks have opted
to educate their kids at home. But for almost everyone else, the choices were
limited—and the system was designed to keep them that way.

however, school choice in a dozen forms has proliferated. Public and private
(both for- and non-profit) providers are educating kids in a dizzying array of
institutions. Charter schools, STEM schools, “governor’s schools,” regional vocational
schools, and “tech-prep” and “early-college” programs are only the tip of the
iceberg. Yet nothing in the traditional governance of public education is
suited to this flowering of options and operators. All sorts of improvisations
and work-arounds have been devised to compensate for the blunt fact that the
system itself is hostile to educational diversity, competition, and choice. As
the system continues to push back against these alternatives, it constrains,
weakens, and often defeats them. Nobody benefits except, maybe, the old system.

endure all this because we’re used to it. Even as in Aspen, few can imagine
anything different. Others despair of changing it.

we’ve lately seen a few experiments suggesting that structural change is not
totally impossible: mayoral control of schools in New York, for example; a
statewide authorizer of charters in Colorado; the consolidation of “county
superintendents” in New Jersey; and more. True, there haven’t been many such
innovations and nobody can “prove” that they work better than the status quo.
But they do suggest that education governance can change.

would we want from a changed system? School-level autonomy is essential, else
educators become compliance-minded rather than innovators who welcome
responsibility. Diversity and choice among schools is crucial, because kids
differ, competition is productive, and monopolies are not.

school networks, not necessarily geographically based, will often prove more
efficient and do better quality-control than thousands of isolated
organizations. (Think “systems of schools” rather than “school systems.”) Nor
should individual schools have to invent everything from scratch or buy it in
small batches; they should be free to join with others in acquiring food
services, transportation, health insurance, speech therapists, and such. They
should also be free to individualize instruction (and boost curricular quality
and diversity while saving money) by providing instruction via technology.

about results will prove vital for parents, taxpayers, and policymakers alike.
And when things really go off the rails in a school, some external authority
needs to be able to intervene.

might this look like in reality?

the governor squarely in charge of education, states would wield most of the
authority and provide most of the money, but those dollars would follow kids to
the schools of their choice, which would largely run themselves, selecting
their staffs, managing their budgets, etc. Most would be brick-and-mortar
structures, but many classes would be online. Some schools would be entirely “virtual.”
All sorts of schools would join together for various purposes and purchase
services (if they choose to) from regional centers that take the place of
today’s school districts. Academic standards in core subjects would be the same
across the land, as would tests and other gauges of performance.

school’s performance would be open for public inspection, as would its
financial records and its staff’s qualifications and track record. Individual
schools might have their own governing boards or turn that job—and whatever “central”
management functions are needed—over to their networks. Schools (and networks)
might entrust their education programs to outside firms while their boards remain
accountable to the state or state-designated “authorizers.” Failed schools
would lose their license to operate. Uncle Sam, meanwhile, would concentrate on
quality data and civil-rights enforcement—and federal dollars (to help educate
disabled kids, say) would accompany state dollars to the schools that families

people are not satisfied with their schools or their results, they would have
three main options: Move their kids to different schools, move their families
to a different state, or elect a different governor.

or pipe-dream, that’s the short version of a better way to organize American
education in the twenty-first century. You may think it could never happen and
you might be right. But we could get closer by passing, changing, or repealing
a handful of laws.

the last twenty years, England didn’t abolish its “local education authorities”—Blighty’s
version of school districts—but it conferred so much autonomy on individual
schools and their boards of governors that it essentially marginalized those
longstanding authorities. American states could do the same. They could also
repackage their money and make it portable anywhere within their borders and
perhaps beyond. They could enact “open enrollment” laws and uncap charters. They
could make school results transparent. The federal government could pull back
from telling states and districts what to do and instead focus on gathering
solid, comparable data about academics and finances.

that picture is messy and incomplete. More thorough change might require some
states to amend their constitutions. But that’s not needed to get considerably
closer to a governance arrangement for American education that is better suited
to today’s realities. The first step down that path, however, is to recognize
that our inherited arrangement is archaic and dysfunctional—and that continuing
to take it for granted is to consign almost all of today’s other earnest
education reforms to frustration and failure.

This piece originally
(in a slightly different format) in the Hoover Institution online
journal, Defining Ideas.

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Chester E. Finn, Jr.
Chester E. Finn, Jr. is a Distinguished Senior Fellow and President Emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.