Face It, School Governance Is a Mess
Why you should be paying more attention to the tangled web of K-12 governance
It’s time for America to clean up its K-12 governance model.
As it stands today, education policy is crafted by tens of thousands of technocratic, political, and legal authorities at the federal, state, and local levels, all with overlaying and duplicative roles.
This unique-to-K-12 web of oversight—the hangover of America’s centuries-long battles over racist policies, federalism, and taxation—is self-defeating, undemocratic, and very expensive.
If you’re upset about crime in your neighborhood, complain to your police chief. Potholes in the local roads? Complain to your mayor. But there are countless people to complain to about the nation’s lagging academic outcomes, from the U.S. secretary of education to governors to state superintendents to district superintendents to more than 90,000 school board members.
According to a recent Education Week survey of 1,100 teachers, just 1 percent said they think state legislatures are best suited to oversee K-12 policies. (Zero percent, apparently, want our so-called “education governors” wading into education policy. Ouch.)
With no clear indicators of who’s in charge, the policies federal, state, and local government bodies impose on educators will inevitably be, as they have been in the past, incohesive, contradictory, and poorly funded.
How did we get here?
Since the establishment of common schools in America, there’s been a push-pull battle between governance bodies over who’s best fit to be in charge of education.
These fraught debates have been spurred on by, among other things, the growth of states’ bureaucracies, urbanization, and the eventual legal expansion of who in America has the right to a public education.
Should government be centralized or fragmented? Where should a school district’s taxing authority begin and end? Should decisionmakers be professionals or politicians? Partisan or nonpartisan? Are school boards really fit to decide how to spend taxpayer dollars? Are legislators?
With these questions left mostly unanswered, the vast majority of states seem to be caught in a purgatory where everybody and nobody is in charge.
This has been complicated by the aging and insufficient manner in which federal, state, and local government bodies distribute more than $700 billion in education aid, an amount that’s almost doubled in the last 30 years.
Federal lawmakers, frustrated with lagging results amid increased spending, have encroached more and more into the minutiae of classroom goings-on. Take, for instance, fights over standards and testing.
Governors and legislatures dictate the spending of more than half of education costs and yet are often the loudest voices pushing for “local control,” a historically loaded and ambiguous term. Just look at how the phrase has been deployed in debates over busing and school choice.
Even at the local level, the so-called rightful place for decisionmaking, there’s no shortage of K-12 initiatives coming from mayors, city councils, and county commissioners that conflict with teacher, principal, superintendent, and school board-driven initiatives.
Plenty of advocates for changes in standards, curriculum, instruction, and finance will tell you that their ideas often fizzle out not because they lack public support or aren’t backed by research. They say it’s because, despite working for a multibillion dollar lobbying industry, they lack the resources, political capital, and inside knowledge to navigate their proposals through the layers of governance and power dynamics that vary and change frequently at the federal, state, and district levels.
I got a front row seat to America’s fractured K-12 governance system four years ago when I began to track K-12 policymaking at the state level. President Barack Obama had just signed the Every Student Succeeds Act into law—a bipartisan effort that returned significant chunks of K-12 decisionmaking to state and local governments.
When I conducted interviews back in 2015, dozens of federal, state, and local officials gushed to me over the virtues of local control, arguing that practitioners would be more committed to home-grown initiatives representing their own agendas and their definitions of success.
But things quickly unraveled.
State boards of education sued legislatures over who had the constitutional right to draft and enact K-12 policy, governors refused to sign off on state superintendents’ decisions, and local district superintendents told parents to dismiss wholesale new accountability ratings and trust their own school ratings instead.
There was so much infighting and undercutting among policymakers in some states that not much change ended up taking place. It’s no wonder so many states now are falling short of their own academic goals.
Politicians’ love of new education initiatives, paired with their aversion to raising taxes, have too often left district superintendents footing other decisionmakers’ bills. Take a look at how local tax dollars are being used to pay down the costs of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and ballooning state pension obligations.
In order to dodge the inevitable class and race wars, state politicians have almost completely backed off consolidating any of our nation’s 13,000 school districts, many of them financially strapped and either overcrowded or losing students.
Most crucially, our nonsensical governance system has left state departments of education gutted, the very agencies tasked with executing federal and state initiatives and coordinating all the necessary training for local initiatives.
That policy churn that teachers are so irritated with coincides with the leadership churn we see in state capitals and state education departments.
I’m not at all advocating for more federal or state authority over our schools. Nor am I saying we should expand or clip the rights of superintendents and school boards to decide what happens in their districts’ classrooms.
But I am saying, let’s decide who does what.
There will be plenty of hand-wringing in the coming years about recently declining NAEP scores, deep and stubborn outcome and opportunity gaps between student groups, and rapidly increasing K-12 costs for taxpayers.
Let’s only hope that all of the outraged politicians, philanthropists, teachers, and parents aim their ire at the true culprit: our governance model.
Vol. 39, Issue 17, Pages 16-17Published in Print: January 8, 2020, as Who Controls Our Schools? Does Anyone?