The Problems of Education Governance in Twenty-First Century America

By 04/29/2011

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The shortcomings 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.

These 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:

First, 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.

Second, 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.

Third, 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.

Fourth, 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.

I’ve 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.

The 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.?

We 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.

As 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.

This 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.

-Chester E. Finn, Jr.

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.

Comment on this article
  • Beatrice Davis Fowler says:

    When the public votes to elect school board members, they believe they are electing citizens who will represent their constituents: families, students and communities. Americans who are familiar with the purpose of checks and balances in government presume their citizen-school board will be an integral check and balance on district administration. They anticipate the school board will not only represent the education needs of all students, respect the culture and the needs of individual communities, but also function as leaders in the local education system. They are often wrong.
    Newly-elected school board members are indoctrinated and pressured until they embrace the concept that there exists a professional superiority of administrators who know best on all education issues. They are trained by state school board associations that their role is to work as a team with the administration. The role of ensuring checks and balances on the education bureaucracy is mostly an illusion, as the board‘s role often becomes a rubber stamp approving administrative recommendations brought before them at public meetings. If a board member attempts to take the lead or question district-produced information, other board members often strongly disapprove, leaving their renegade colleague hanging in the wind. The public doesn’t realize the pressure exerted on board members to comply with administration is intense, causing most to flounder and then surrender.
    I know firsthand, as I served on a Florida school district board for eight years. Beatrice Davis Fowler
    Exposing the Public Education System, co-authored by Fowler, is a bold, new book that documents and explains how public education has failed us all and shows how the entire system can be transformed, not just one part of it.

  • Jim says:

    The multiple levels of decision-making in education are further complicated by the fact that each level has distinctly different funding sources available for micro-management of what goes on in the classroom. The state controls a piece for its priorities (STEM, English Language instruction, “21st Century Skills”, etc.), the federal government tries to exert control over IDEA and Title I funds, and localities try to influence how local funds are spent. School board members (at least those outside the small, upscale suburbs where they are subject to considerable scrutiny) scramble to fund and protect just enough of their individual priorities to gain favor with the consituencies that elect them. The administrators at the site level have little say over any of this, and yet they supposedly bear all of the “accountability”. Meanwhile, precious little of the money gets spent according to what the parent and student “end users” actually want, because they typically have few choices under their particular local monopoly. It is really hard to imagine another system that would be more suited to failure.

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