To anyone concerned with the state of America’s schools, one of the more alarming experiences of the past few decades has been the sight of waves of innovative reforms crashing upon the rocks of our education system. Charter schools have popped up all over the landscape; vouchers are being implemented in more and more places; massive federal initiatives like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top have invested billions of dollars in fixing our schools. And yet the results remain dismal: Millions of children still cannot read satisfactorily, do math at an acceptable level, or perform the other skills needed for jobs in the modern economy.
Why this persistent failure? One major cause is clearly our deeply flawed system for organizing and operating public schools. Currently, our approach to school management is a confused and tangled web, involving the federal government, the states, and local school districts—each with ill-defined responsibilities and often conflicting interests. As a result, over the past 50 years, obsolescence, clumsiness, and misalignment have come to define the governance of public education. This development is not anyone’s fault, per se: It is simply what happens when opportunities and needs change, but structures don’t. The system of schooling we have today is the legacy of the 19th century—and hopelessly outmoded in the 21st.