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Deconstructing Decentralization: 12 Tips

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Decentralization is a favorite theme of reformers, both in education and in the private sector. It is a positive buzzword, but its meaning and implications for action have become less clear as its use has become more widespread. I offer below--drawn from my own research and from the experience of big-city school systems that have tried to reform educational governance--a dozen conclusions on what decentralization means and how it can lead to real improvements in public education.

1. Decentralization is a means not an end. Its ultimate goal is to make schools more responsive to the needs of students. It assumes that too many teachers and principals are now preoccupied with rules and compliance, and that less-prescriptive governance would permit greater attention to the planning, delivery, and improvement of instruction.

2. Decentralization means that key instructional decisions are made at the school. It empowers the school as a unit, vis a vis the school board, central office, union contract, and other mechanisms of central control. Decentralization gives school communities the opportunity to adjust services and course offerings to the specific needs of current students. It permits collaboration unconstrained by externally-imposed rules and procedures.

3. Decentralization does not require creation of a formal political system within each school. The goal of decentralization is collaboration and shared responsibility, not struggle among power blocks of teachers, administrators, and parents. Some school communities may be able to operate under explicit "constitutions'' that establish checks, balances, veto powers, and other trappings of representative democracy. But those same structures can impose vast transactions costs and create gridlock and polarization in many schools. School communities should be able to decide whether they delegate power to a few trusted leaders, unite behind a strong principal, or invest the time and energy required to run themselves as if they were a nation-state.

4. To become the sites of key instructional decisions, schools must control their own resources. Schools must have fungible resources, not fixed ones: In particular, teaching staffs and staff-development activities must be chosen and controlled at the school site. The reason so few school systems have become fully decentralized is that funds are still controlled by categorical programs, central-office units, and union contracts.

5. In a decentralized school system funds must be allocated fairly. In most school systems, centralization has been maintained by secret resource-allocation deals whereby the administration grants each school's special requests for resources. Decentralization is incompatible with such ex parte deals. Without real equality in per-pupil spending, schools are pitted against one another, creating new opportunities for governance via rules.

6. Decentralization does not necessarily imply the withering-away of the school board or central office. Not all decisions can or should be made at the school level. The broader community has a responsibility to protect children from the failures of the adults who are supposed to serve them. Some fair external authority must be able to intervene in failing schools and reconstitute them. Many schools also work better if their basic missions are defined by external authorities rather than negotiated out at the school level.

7. Few schools can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. Schools that want help yet do not want to expose themselves to further regulation by the central office have an option. They can join or create networks of similar schools or affiliate with a design organization like the Coalition of Essential Schools. Such networks are good protections against the re-centralizing tendencies of any school system. They also insure schools steady access to constructive and expert help.

8. Having decisionmaking power does not always guarantee that a group--parents, teachers, community members--will be particularly well served or satisfied by a school. Running a school is very difficult, especially when it requires a diverse group of people to form a consensus. Many decisionmaking groups are forced to return again and again to first principles, and struggle to make instructional decisions.

9. Most decisionmaking groups are more effective when their choices are bounded, as, for instance, by a prior commitment to a mission or some basic principles of operation. Such prior commitments--whether established by the school board or by a small group of founders--channel self-governnent discussions toward means, not ends. They inevitably make a school more attractive to some parents and teachers than to others.

10. Most parents and teachers are more comfortable and effective choosing among an array of alternatives than developing their own model. No parent should be forced to attend frequent meetings or take responsibility for management of activities for which teachers and principals are paid. Parents should be free to exercise choice rather than voice. School systems should, however, include at least a few completely self-governed schools for those who want to form new communities and hammer out new agreements.

11. Schools that live by decentralization must also be able to die by it. Schools that fail their students or collapse into mutual recrimination should be redeveloped. Though community groups and the central office may try to mediate disputes and remedy problems, a troubled school must be considered a candidate for closing, no matter who is at fault. This ultimate risk of closing, which applies to all private schools, is the strongest possible incentive for the parents, teachers, and principals to avoid polarizing conflicts.

12. Accountability for schools in a decentralized system should be based on contracts. The school should tell parents what their children will experience and what kinds of effort are required, and should enter into fair-employment contracts with teachers. The school's mission, funding, evaluation procedures, and grounds for redevelopment or closure should all be specified in a contract with the school board.

Paul Hill is senior social scientist for the RAND Corporation.

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