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School & District Management

ECS Center To Sort Through New Governance Structures

By Bess Keller — September 20, 2000 3 min read

The Education Commission of the States has founded a center to help states and districts understand and put in place innovative forms of school governance.

“Mounting frustration about inadequate performance of our schools has spawned a variety of new and sometimes radical proposals to change traditional governance models,” Ted Sanders, the president of the ECS, said in announcing the center. “But lawmakers know that they cannot continue to turn to such approaches in a haphazard manner; they need well-thought out options.”

Backed by a three-year, $590,000 grant from the Joyce Foundation in Chicago, the National Center for Innovation in Governing American Education will aim to lead the national discussion on who should make the rules for American public education. The possibilities vary from the traditional—school boards and superintendents—to local schools, mayors, charter school leaders, corporations, and others.

The Denver-based ECS started exploring such possibilities about two years ago with the formation of a national commission, Governing America’s Schools. The commission released a report last fall calling for districts to decentralize authority to the school level and allow taxpayer dollars to follow students to publicly financed schools of their choice.

More specifically, the report laid out two models of governance aimed at making schools more successful. In one, districts would retain some powers, such as hiring a superintendent and principals, while in the other, districts would act largely as contractors, handing over the operation of schools to any one of a number of organizations. (“ECS Report Tackles K-12 Governance,” Nov. 10, 1999.)

Center To Spread Research

The center, which was announced last month and is based at ECS headquarters in Denver, will build on the work of the commission, tracking governance innovations, fostering and distributing research, evaluating governance models, and helping districts and states make changes to their organizations.

“We decided the best way we could provide assistance ... was to establish some formal presence at ECS and out in the field with our constituents,” said Todd M. Ziebarth, an ECS policy analyst who will work for the new center.

Some kinds of assistance are already under way. A citizens’ task force studying school governance in the Kansas City metropolitan area considers the ECS report central to its deliberations. That panel hopes to link up with experts at the center via a videoconference, and bring ECS staff members to a public discussion of governance options for metropolitan-area schools in both Kansas and Missouri.

“The report has been a key piece of evidence our task force is considering,” said Jennifer Wilding, a senior associate of Kansas City Consensus, the citizens’ group that organized the school governance task force.

In Florida, the ECS helped a blue-ribbon commission make recommendations to the legislature on revamping the state’s education governance system after voters approved a constitutional amendment that will put a board appointed by the governor in charge of public education. Currently, the governor and his elected Cabinet function as the state school board.

The ECS provided the Florida commission with information on forms of organization in both the public and private sectors.

“It gives you an external check on your work and provides a different perspective that you hope is less regional and more national, even international,” said Kathy Mizereck, the director of legislative affairs for the Florida education department. “It is difficult to find folks like ECS who have thought through these issues of kindergarten-through-graduate-school organization.”

By next spring, the center expects to have pages on the World Wide Web that track governance innovation around the country.

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