The problem of education governance in twenty-first century America


click to watch video of this commentary

Click to watch a video of this commentary, as part of Fordham's
recent event, "Are School Boards Vital in the 21st Century?"

of elected local school boards
are only the most obvious of the many
problems of education governance in the United States in 2011.  To be sure, those boards are a fundamental
part, maybe the largest part, of our customary governance arrangements, but my discontent with them is
just part of my larger dissatisfaction with all traditional governance and
structural arrangements for K-12 education on these shores.

arrangements, though they differ some from place to place, generally display
four characteristics that make them obsolete at best and dysfunctional at their
all-too-common worst:

while formal constitutional responsibility for educating kids belongs to the
states, the actual delivery of that education falls squarely on local education
agencies, typically called districts, which are geographically defined, most
often by the boundaries of a city, town, county, or other municipality. Kids are
generally educated in public schools operated by these districts.

though states have shouldered some responsibility for financing public
education, usually by decreeing a minimum or “foundation” level of per-pupil
spending, sizable portions of education revenue are locally generated through
property taxes, bond levies, and such. Those amounts differ enormously from
place to place within the same state and are uncommonly vulnerable to interest
group manipulation and local politics.

at both the state and local levels, public education usually operates under
governance arrangements that are separated from the rest of state and municipal
governments, most commonly by being answerable to a separate board of
education, most often elected, sometimes appointed, rather than directly to the
governor, mayor, county commission, city council, or whatever. Historically,
this was intended to buffer education from conventional politics and patronage.

overall education governance has multiple layers, always at least three, often
four and sometimes more. At minimum, these layers represent decisions made in,
and funding arising from, Washington, the state level, and the local level. Besides
all that, governance-type decisions may be made at the building level—and
frequently at intermediate levels within a big district or region of a state.

come to believe that, whatever sense this set-up may have made fifty or a
hundred years ago, it doesn’t make much today. Indeed, none of those four
elements makes sense.

Too often, imaginative, energized, and
forward-looking superintendents are undermined, shackled, and
distracted by seven or nine member boards, each consisting of seven or
nine separate agendas.


multi-layer decision-making structure, while faithful in its way to American
federalism, mainly serves nowadays to pull schools apart in response to funding
and regulatory streams emanating from different levels of government, to foster
bureaucracy, confusion, and tension and, maybe most importantly, to give every
level a functional veto over reforms initiated at any other level. It doesn’t
matter how much a state may want to participate in Race to the Top, for
example, when each district in that state decides for itself whether to join
in. Conversely, a district may yearn to bring Teach For America to town but the
alternative certification rules for that district are set by the state. And
these examples don’t even touch upon NCLB or the myriad other ways that Uncle
Sam confounds and complicates how states and districts run their schools.

Separate governance for
education doesn’t make much sense, either, not when we recognize that
developing kids doesn’t just involve their cognition but also their physical
health, social development, character, and much else. Why is education
governance divorced from health, welfare, recreation, and the rest? Observe how
often we burden the schools with obligations to prevent drug abuse, make kids
fit, teach them character, get them inoculated, keep them off the streets, and
on and on. How much more sensible it would be to place the same folks in charge
of schools, juvenile justice, nutrition, public health, family services, etc.?

now live in a highly mobile society and one that’s highly metropolitanized: over
80 percent of Americans live in
urban locales
and nearly 15 percent change residences in any given year. We’re
no longer a land of small towns with geographically rooted, multi-generation
families. There’s no reason for primary-secondary education to be different, or
differently governed, or differently financed, from Anne Arundel County to
Prince George’s County, MD, or from Arlington to Alexandria to Fairfax, VA. The
same goes for Brookline to Newton in MA and Evanston to Winnetka in IL. In
fact, these boundaries often impede student learning, restrict choice, and
confound budgets. Think about kids attending schools across district lines,
charter schools, or virtual schools that may operate statewide or in multiple
states. Why are we jamming these educational realities and funding flows onto
the traditional municipal system? If a kid who lives in Dayton attends the Ohio
Virtual Academy, or Oakwood or Kettering High School (in nearby suburbs), or
splits his time between the Ponitz Career Technology Center and Sinclair
Community College, who exactly is responsible for that kid’s education? And who
is paying for it? As the system is currently defined, that burden is mainly
owned by the Dayton Public School district, just because that kid’s parents
happen to live within the city limits of Dayton this month.

for school boards, I’ll concede that in some suburbs, small towns, and rural
communities, the elected board may still consist of selfless community leaders
who want only the best for kids. In our cities, however, and in plenty of other
places large and small, I challenge you to point me to more than a handful of
examples of local districts that, over a prolonged period (e.g. a decade), have
been able to devise, execute, and stick to a kid-focused, quality-driven reform
agenda for their schools. Too often, imaginative, energized, and forward-looking
superintendents are undermined, shackled, and distracted by seven or nine
member boards, each consisting of seven or nine separate agendas.  And far too often for the good of the kids in
their community, those seven or nine people fit into three types. There’s the
aspiring politician for whom the school board is a step toward the legislature,
county council, or wherever. Then there’s the single-issue zealot, bent on a
particular curriculum, neighborhood, patronage arrangement, weird cause, or
adult interest, often tugged and manipulated by outside constituencies,
including teacher unions. And, third, there’s the vengeful former employee of
that very district, bent on getting the superintendent or someone else fired
and replaced.

is no good way to run a railroad, much less our children’s educations. We need
to find a better one. I’m not yet ready to spell out some possible solutions,
but I’m sure ready to declare that we have an enormous problem in need of fresh
alternatives, not more of the same.

Click to play

Click to listen to commentary on the future role of school boards from the Education Gadfly Show podcast

This piece is an
adaptation for remarks made at Fordham’s recent event: “Are School Boards Vital
in the 21st Century.” View the
video of the event
and read
a recap of the discussion

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