Local Control and 'Organizacrats'

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We have met the enemy, and they is us!" That's the Pogo-like characterization sketched in "Reinventing Local Control" by Chester E. Finn Jr. Commentary, Jan. 23, 1991). Mr. Finn contends, in effect, that people cannot be trusted to govern their own community's public schools.

Democratic representative governance of the public elementary and secondary schools in the local community--as epitomized by the locally elected school board--is old-fashioned and doesn't work anymore, shoring up every obstacle to education change, he says, are the local school board and its superintendent, both of whom he accuses of being "preservers of entrenched interests and encrusted practices." Mr. Finn's formula for education improvement: Do away with the local school board, which he excorciates as being "superfluous" and "dysfunctional," and while you're at it, fire the superintendent. Both are "living fossils of an earlier age," he concludes. And because the people of an entire community cannot govern their public schools, make each school an island unto its own, connected only with the fatherly authorities in the education bureaucracy in the state capital.

What is Mr. Finn's case for such a radical move? He offers four reasons. Each one is off the mark and, taken as a group, they nullify each other.

His first reason is that states, not local school districts, have evolved over the years as the "senior partners in school finance." To begin with, this general statement has no application to many of the nation's more than 15,000 local districts where so-called state aid pays the minority share of financing schools. But, even in those states that have instituted a state equalization formula that has as its base not the wealth of a particular district but the resources of the state as a whole to pay for education, the questions arise: "So what? What bearing does that have on who should govern each community's schools?"

The answer: It has no bearing at all. Regardless of how money comes back to support local school districts, it all begins as tax dollars from each local community. Newer state school-finance formulas--instituted primarily by judicial fiat because the courts found that some states' school-aid-equalization formulas never really equalized resources--have not lowered the tax money that local communities pay for their schools. The state formula merely has changed how such tax money is collected from the local community.

For decades, local school boards have urged state legislatures to use their authority over broader, more flexible tax-revenue sources than the real-property tax available to boards for funding the schools. At no time during years of debate did proponents an expanded tax base for schools--in local communities or in state legislatures--ever suggest that a good reason to do it was to increase control of the public schools from state capitals. Had they done so, they would have been laughed off the stage.

A logical extension of Mr. Finn's argument would be that, if the federal government ever carries through with the Jeffersonian commonors signed in Charlottesville, Va., in 1989, primary control over education should pass from the states to the federal government. In that agreement are provisions calling for more federal aid to education, as well as a super-equalization effort to bring additional federal funding to less affluent states. Mr. Finn's second argument is even more specious than linking tax-revenue allocation (without regard to source to school control. It declares that state governments are "where most of the action has been with respect to policy innovation."

This assertion prompts the retort of the old Brooklyn Dodgers fan: "Sez who?!" Education innovation in local districts across the United States during the past decade has been substantial. All it takes is for somebody to notice it. And, aye, there's the rub.

It's not easy for the national media to track innovation in more than 15,000 local communities. But, anybody who takes the time to ask the question of local school-board members, administrators, or teachers: "How has your instructional program changed in, say, the past five or 10 years?" will get an earful.

Certainly state legislatures and governors have enacted considerable school-reform legislation in the past several years, and much of it has advanced the cause of school improvement, especially where proper funding also was included. But most of the specific programmatic ideas that found their way into new state laws and state-school-board regulations were based on experiences in the local school districts. They did not miraculously appear as visions from heaven in the 5 minds of state education people while out fasting in the desert.

And this is understandable because the best innovators--the most highly qualified teachers and most able administrators--are employed in local community school systems. It is at the local level that educators are best rewarded, both psychically from their professional contribution and financially from better salary schedules than are available at the state level. As to the other aspects of what advocates call the "education-reform agenda," such as extending the school day and year, conducting year-round school, and substantially raising teacher salaries, school boards know these attractive proposals, as a practical matter, cost big dollars. School districts, board members know, are labor-intensive enterprises. Salary and fringe benefits account for 85 percent of most districts' operating budgets. When people talk about "new programs," they're invariably talking about hiring new people. And when they talk retrenchment, they really mean reducing employees.

The two--employees and programs--are inextricably linked. And that linkage is the basis for the "opposition" school boards and administrators often raise to reform schemes that either are unfunded or woefully underfunded. In return, these tough-decision makers at the local level are pilloried as troglodytes resisting change. But school boards are gatekeepers of reality. And one of the realities school boards and their superintendents always face is matching the available dollars to the myriad proposals that regularly come before them.

It is elemental that reform in schooling occurs only in schools. What many observers count as reform at the state level is actually rhetoric about reform. State legislatures have in fact adopted many oppressive statutes over the years that ruin the type of local school environment needed for innovation. As barnacles slow down ships, these laws that limit school-board discretionary authority over personnel, curriculum, and other crucial operating areas--and that substitute micro-management by statute--hinder local initiative and stifle local imagination by undercutting boards' authority to act as local policymakers.

Mr. Finn's proffering of the "choice" idea as an argument to abolish local community control of the schools is perhaps the least relevant of all. Local boards generally have no problem with "choice," in which parents select the public school for their children within their district or where state law contemplates cross-district transfer, at least not so long as certain sensible conditions are met: Selections must be made for a full school year; racial balance may not be lessened; rules regarding athletic-program eligibility may not be subverted, district transportation costs may not be increased, and so on.

But where "choice" is an excuse to fund private education from public tax money, the opposition is, of course, spirited. Nevertheless, the common-sense fact--buttressed by clear experience in states having cross-district "choice" plans in operation where the number of parents wanting their children to attend schools away from their home area is negligible--is that almost all children will attend school in their own community. It is a mystery how "choice" constitutes a reason to eliminate community control of the public schools, as Mr. Finn asserts.

The final reason he invokes for throwing out local community school boards and their superintendents is a sort of potpourri in which he alleges that everything generally described as educational "restructuring," "decentralization," and "site management" constitutes a triangle sounding the death knell for local community representative governance of its schools. As evidence, he submits the English school-governance experience, which is as unlike the United States' experience with local school boards as Parliament and the monarchy are different from Capitol Hill and the White House.

This school balkanization of a community would create the kind of "have" and "have not" schools within a community that the Serrano line of "equal protection" court cases prohibited among communities within a state. We then would have a worse social-class problem than the one Britain now is trying to shake off. Separate public schools for the very poor, for the middle class, and for the affluent would be the natural result.

The fact is that the public schools in the United States (and Canada) have been decentralized from the start--indeed, too decentralized in light of today's standards and transportation conditions. That's the reason school districts gradually combined or unified over the years so that today, instead of having 128,000 boards, as was the situation in 1930, we have about 15,350. Our challenge is not to go backward to ward the extreme decentralization of years long gone but to make the current decentralized community approach to education work.

Local school-board governance consists of several indispensable functions. The board translates federal law and integrates state mandates into local policy action; tests proposed educational initiatives against the backdrop of community need and sentiment; evaluates on behalf of the en tire community the educational program; monitors the work of the superintendent and administrative staff who implement board policy; serves as the final appellate body short of the court system on appeals of citizens and school employees from administrative decisions; cooperatively deals (both as a board and as individual board members with citizens in school matters in the tradition of responsive, responsible representative governance; and interacts with federal, state, and other local-government entities to ensure that the schools are given the attention they deserve.

Each of these functions is so critical that they have given rise to the rubric, "If community school boards didn't exist, we would have to invent them."

School-site management is another phony issue thrown in by Mr. Finn. It is more a case of management style than of basic governance change. Indeed, site management--with its implicit transfer of much administrative authority from the central office to the school site--is related more to how superintendents and principals to their work than how local boards govern education in communities. The abiding concerns of school boards with respect to site management are in reserving to the people of any community, through representative governance, the right to make overall education policy for the community.

And that brings us to another major flaw in Mr. Finn's reasoning: It is naive. Although he presents no coherent plan to govern schools once the school board and superintendent are assigned to perdition, he apparently thinks that individual schools, with vaguely structured, leaderless committees of teachers and parents, can both function effectively and be equal partners with the faraway state bureaucracy. Not only would they foment a kind of neo-anarchy, but they also would be torn asunder by state bureaucracies asserting their "superior" knowledge of what is really best for schools, as they so often do today with local districts serving politically powerful communities.

But Mr. Finn's errant proposal is no surprise. It flows naturally from experience with the U.S. Education Department in a time when advancing specific education ideologies counted more than assessing reality. He is an exemplar of a new breed of education activists most accurately called organizacrats. Their solution to every problem is, you guessed it: Reorganize! Nobody except an organizacrat would tell reasonable people that they can solve all of their problems by simply reorganizing, and nobody else could do it with a glibness and chutzpah that astounds experienced practitioners.

But, the real or apocryphal wisdom of the ages on the limits of reorganizing is summed up in the injunction of one of the Roman Emperor Nero's deputies, Petronius Arbiter, who declared, "... we tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing; and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization."

Experienced practitioners of public-school governance, administration, and teaching know that the real problems of the schools are a reflection of our society. Schools are not the whole cause of the problems but rather are the places where the problems are most evident in each community.

A holistic approach to enhancing children's natural capacity and desire to learn--one that incorporates concerted action by government, business, labor, churches, and families, as well as the schools--must be complemented with a public commitment for a sensible dollar investment in children and a resolve to use technology effectively in education. But, on all three counts--gearing up local communities to address the human dimension of learning, recognizing that true educational change has its roots in societal change and definitely will be no free lunch, and incorporating technology into the curriculum as well as the administration of schools--the record of the U.S. Education Department is a cipher.

It is precisely in these areas, however, that school boards are beginning to guide their districts. That is the genius of the American system of local community governance. And the shame is that it is being done without assistance from Mr. Finn and the other organizacrats so preoccupied with pondering the wrong questions.

Vol. 10, Issue 21, Pages 31-32

Published in Print: February 13, 1991, as Local Control and 'Organizacrats'
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