Anyone who has spent serious time within the U.S. public education system would likely agree that there are too many chefs in the school governance kitchen. Not only that, some of them are terrible cooks. Which means that great governance is scarce, consensus is hard to achieve, and significant change is rare. Yet our education governance system, lamented and disparaged as it often is, is one of the least understood aspects of American K–12 schooling. So while it’s easy to agree that “bad” governance gets in the way of doing what’s best for kids, it’s harder to pinpoint just what exactly is so dysfunctional when it comes to running schools.
To shine a flashlight into this murk, we must first define the governance “system” that we’re talking about. Who exactly makes which kinds of education decisions? State or local? Who has the power? Is that power dispersed or centralized? To what degree can the wider public—not just insiders—participate in policymaking? These are some of the gnarly questions that characterize governance; but because they’re also humdrum and wonky, not many people bother trying to ask them.
Some of this apathy (or is it despair?) arises from the reality that the structures, rules, and institutions of American public education are indeed cumbersome and difficult to change. Issues like whether the state, district, or building leader decides how to dismiss an ineffective teacher often fall under the purview of the state constitution or education code. Ditto for how the state superintendent is selected. Even seemingly small matters, like altering when the local school board holds elections, can prove impervious to change.
Yet all is not lost. Fissures can be seen in the governance glacier. We’ve seen “cage-busting” leaders who know how to work in or around the system so that it functions better for kids (think of Paul Pastorek, Howard Fuller, Mike Feinberg, Wendy Kopp, Chris Barbic, Deborah Gist, Joel Klein, and others). We’ve even seen the structure itself remodeled in places that have shifted from uniformity to “portfolio” models, switched from board to mayoral control, created charter schools and statewide recovery districts, and handed school leaders more power while awarding “central offices” less.
So how to make sense out of a system with some cords that are binding and others that show some stretch? We turned to the University of Oregon’s Joanna Smith, who had previously co-authored a nifty study on education governance in California. Dr. Smith, aided by several talented graduate students, agreed to conduct a new study with two of Fordham’s own best analysts, Dara Zeehandelaar and David Griffith. The result is Schools of Thought: A Taxonomy of American Education Governance, released today.
Our dream team categorized state-level governance systems around three broad questions:
- How much education decision-making authority lies at the state versus the local level? Do state-level institutions control decisions related to school takeovers, teacher evaluations, textbook adoption, and taxation or are these things mostly decided locally?
- Is education decision-making distributed among many institutions or consolidated in a few? Does a single state board have authority over issues like higher education and teacher credentialing, or are these handled by separate bodies?
- To what degree can the public participate in the policymaking process? Are leaders elected or appointed, and by what means?
Answers to these questions yielded both big-picture findings and tantalizing factoids (at least in the eyes of us governance geeks).
Betcha didn’t know that (aside from Hawaii, with its single school district), North Carolina concentrates by far the most authority at the state level. Tar Heel state officials have the power to determine district boundaries and tax rates, mandate which textbooks may be used in classrooms, take over low-performing schools and districts, authorize new charter schools, and require that districts evaluate teachers annually, using a state-prescribed evaluation instrument. At the other end of the spectrum is Wyoming, which leaves most of this authority to its local districts.
We also learn that Florida has the most “consolidated” governance system, with authority overwhelmingly vested in a single state board and with a small number of very large school districts. Its foil is Alaska: The Last Frontier has the most distributed system of governance, with authority over higher education, CTE, and adult basic education parceled out to the Board of Regents, the Commission on Postsecondary Education, and the Department of Labor and Workforce Development. Additionally, it operates fifty-five districts to serve 131,000 students.
But we mainly hunted for similarities, not contrasts. To that end, the analysts fit similar states into eight categories—a taxonomy, if you will—based on their common characteristics. We named those categories after an octet of history’s most illustrious political thinkers and statesmen, people who have wrestled with governance questions over the centuries and whose central beliefs can be distinguished from one another: Jefferson, Hamilton, Lincoln, Locke, Burke, Madison, Andrew Jackson, and Plato.
Just as Jefferson distrusted the wisdom of a ruling class, the ten Jeffersonian states (including Alaska, Arizona, and California) vest much authority at the local level, distribute decision making among multiple institutions, and favor democratic participation. By contrast, the seven Hamiltonian states (including Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Delaware) feature governance systems that vest greater authority in the state than in local agencies, consolidate decision making within a small number of institutions, and limit public participation—consistent with the thinking of their namesake, who believed in a forceful, proactive central government. The Lincolnian states (Michigan, Nevada, and Tennessee among them) concentrate authority at the state level and within few institutions, yet also encourage public participation. In this, they mirror the preferences of our sixteenth president, who supported a strong central government that was also accountable to public opinion. (See the full report for more on the taxonomy.)
Burke remarked in 1792 that “the several species of government vie with each other in the absurdity of their constitutions, and the oppression which they make their subjects endure.” Those desiring to undo the absurdities of American public education governance are wise to begin with a clearer understanding not only of the arrangements they’re presently working within, but also of the remarkably different circumstances that have arisen in other jurisdictions. Our new report supplies such understanding.
Chester E. Finn, Jr., scholar, educator and public servant, has devoted his career to improving education in the United States. At Fordham, he is now Distinguished Senior Fellow and President Emeritus. He is also a Senior Fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution.