June 22, 2011

How to Run Public Schools in the 21st Century

Our current models are bad for taxpayers--and calamitous for kids.

Almost everyone who cares about revitalizing American primary-secondary education senses that many of its fundamental structures are archaic and its governance arrangements dysfunctional. Yet any effort to address those problems typically leads either to a glazed look on the visage of the putative audience ("governance" is such a wonky topic, best consigned to civics courses, while we pay attention instead 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.

Yet not to confront the challenges of structure and governance in public education in our time is to accept the glum fact that the most earnest 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.

Education governance in the 21st century
Illustration by Barbara Kelley

The main structures of U.S. public education date to the 19th 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 to 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 contaminated.

Much 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 for decades its assignment dealt mainly with higher education. Massachusetts got its state board of education—focused on primary-secondary schooling—in 1837. It came in response to Governor Edward Everett’s admonishment of lawmakers. He told them that while locally-operated "common" schools were well and good:

The school houses might, in many cases, be rendered more commodious. Provision ought to be made for affording the advantages of education, throughout the whole year, to all of a proper age to receive it. Teachers well qualified to give elementary instruction in all the branches of useful knowledge, should be employed; and small school libraries, maps, globes, and requisite scientific apparatus should be furnished. I submit to the Legislature, whether the creation of a board of commissioners of schools, to serve without salary, with authority to appoint a secretary, on a reasonable compensation, to be paid from the school fund, would not be of great utility.

The very first secretary of that "board of commissioners" was, of course, Horace Mann, often termed the father of public education in the United State.

These 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. Most 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 professional in the education field.

The main structures of U.S. public education date to the 19th Century.

Although 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 1100 of them, Maryland just 24. Most are coterminous with a county or municipal entity (town, village, etc.) though almost never are they directly governed by that entity.

The 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.

These new realities raise some interesting questions: why is 6th 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 the board 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.

Much 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 graduate 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.)

When it comes to instruction, the public education system takes for granted that one size fits all.

Third, keeping primary-secondary education separate from the rest of the public sector now does more harm than good. Splitting its operation and policy-making 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.

It 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—or 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 that takes little account of individual differences or preferences, much less the potential of competing providers. In short, the public education system takes for granted 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.

Today, 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, "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, or defeats them. Nobody benefits except, maybe, the old system.

We endure all this because we’re used to it. Few can imagine anything different. Others despair of changing it. Perhaps they’re right.

Or maybe they’re not. We’ve seen a few experiments of late 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 demonstrate one thing: education governance can change.

A few recent experiments suggest that structural change in education is not totally impossible.

What 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.

Voluntary 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.

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

What might this look like in reality?

With 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.

Every 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 select.

If 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.

Dream or pipe-dream, that’s the short version of a better way to organize American education in the 21st 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.

Over the last 20 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 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.

Yes, 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.


Chester E. Finn Jr. is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and chairman of the Koret Task Force on K–12 Education. He is also president and trustee of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. Previously, he was professor of education and public policy at Vanderbilt University, senior fellow of the Hudson Institute, founding partner with the Edison Project and legislative director for Senator Daniel P. Moynihan. He served as assistant US education secretary for research and improvement from 1985 to 1988.

Author of more than 400 articles and 20 books, Finn's most recent books are Exam Schools: Inside America’s Most Selective Public High Schools and Reroute the Preschool Juggernaut (Hoover Institution Press, 2009).

His research papers are available at the Hoover Institution Archives.


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