School & District Management

ECS Report Tackles K-12 Governance

By Jessica L. Sandham — November 10, 1999 7 min read
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States and districts could create more successful schools by changing who makes the rules, a national panel asserts in a report being released this week by the Education Commission of the States.

Recommendations On
School Governance

A long-anticipated report titled “Governing America’s Schools: Changing The Rules” is available this week through the Education Commission of the States. It was compiled by an 18-member commission of education leaders from around the country and often two distinct approaches to governance an options for state and district leaders looking to improve their schools. The first model builds on the current systems of publicly funded and publicly operated schools, while the second approach would create a system of publicly funded schools run by independent entitites.

Both approaches call for:

  • Strengthening, not discarding, the public school system;
  • Allowing money to follow the child to the school he or she attends;
  • Providing information on student, teacher, and school performance to parents and community members;
  • Giving parents more choice about where their children attend school
  • Granting individual schools control over their prersonnel and budgets
  • Focusing accountability systems on improved students acheivement
  • Redefining the role of teachers’ unions; and
  • Strengthening the role of school boards.

SOURCE: Education Commission of the States

In an executive summary made available to Education Week last week, the report’s authors outline two distinct approaches to school governance that state lawmakers could tap to make changes in unsuccessful schools and districts. Both emphasize decentralizing authority to the school level, giving more options to parents, and allowing taxpayer dollars to follow students to the publicly funded schools of their choice.

But the models are distinguishable by one critical difference: The first lays out a governance structure in which schools would still be operated directly by public districts, while the second envisions districts in which individual schools are run almost exclusively by independent entities under contract to a district board.

The ECS—a nonpartisan, Denver-based policy clearinghouse that serves governors, legislators, and other state leaders—has emphasized that the report, “Governing America’s Schools: Changing The Rules,” is intended mainly to trigger a national debate on the role of school governance in improving education. The report—which was set for release Nov. 9—does not advocate either of the two approaches.

“Because it’s ECS that’s doing this, it puts governance right on the front burner,” said Donald McAdams, a school board member in the Houston Independent School District and a member
of the National Commission on Governing America’s Schools, the group that prepared the report. “What this says to the country is that governance is a critical component of education reform.”

Decentralizing Authority

As part of a multiyear initiative on school governance financed by a $450,000, three-year grant from the Chicago-based Joyce Foundation, the ECS first assembled the commission on governance last February and charged it with devising strategies to improve the operation of schools. The commission is made up of 18 education stakeholders from around the country, including state and local school board members, superintendents, state lawmakers, and others.

The commission met as a group on three occasions to sketch out various governance approaches, combining four original proposed models into two and making other revisions after outside observers panned an early draft of the report as confusing and unworkable during an ECS conference this past summer.(“Panel’s Draft Report on Governance Draws Fire at Meeting,” Aug. 4, 1999.)

Commission members are scheduled to meet again on Nov. 15 in Williamsburg, Va., to discuss the implications of the final report and answer questions.

With strong state and district-level standards, school choice, and radically decentralized budgeting, commission members say the first governance model outlined in the final report pushes the envelope of what states and districts could do under current state law.

Districts would continue to hire superintendents and principals, bargain with unions, and hold schools accountable for results. But individual schools would write their own budgets based on per-pupil funding, hire and fire teachers, and allocate resources as they saw fit.

“Option one would certainly advance the movement to decentralize public school systems,” said commission member Adam Urbanski, the president of the Rochester (N.Y.) Teachers Association, an American Federation of Teachers affiliate. “Ultimately, it would lead to a less bureaucratized governance of schools ... and mean that fewer teachers will tell me that they love to teach but hate their jobs.”

District as Contractor

The second option outlined in the report, meanwhile, imagines a school system in which the district acts largely as a contractor, and schools are run by independent entities limited only by state and federal laws and the terms of their charters with the district. The concept is similar to the charter school approach in that it would allow a vast array of organizations to run schools, including for-profit entities, largely free from government regulations.

Under this model, states would only set minimum standards in a limited number of areas. Schools would negotiate salaries and benefits with teachers and principals, set standards, write curricula, and borrow and spend public funds at their own discretion. Districts would distribute money, recruit staff members, and provide the public with information about the schools.

School boards, or “chartering boards,” would oversee the schools, and could immediately shut down schools not meeting the terms of their charters.

Despite the decentralization of authority to local schools, the second model “significantly enhances the power of local school boards” by freeing them to hire the contractors of their choice to implement policies as the boards see fit, Mr. McAdams said. “Currently, if you’re a school board enacting bold new policies, it takes a long time to see those policies take effect in schools. Under the second approach, on a contract-by-contract basis, it gives the school boards enormous power to enact real change.”

According to the report, states wishing to try such a governance model would have to change their laws concerning the use of state operating and capital funds and collective bargaining. They would also have to empower district chartering boards to authorize and oversee schools, and create public school real estate trusts from which chartering schools could lease space. But even within the commission itself, the second model has its critics.

“I like model one and only model one,” Mr. Urbanski said. “I think the second model runs the risk of creating an educational Lebanon, a free-for-all.”

Political Realities

And based on the descriptions available last week in the executive summary, some education observers criticized the commission’s decision to give the two models equal billing in the report.

“The reality for most elected officials is to prod for change within the existing system, which is option one,” said Michael D. Usdan, the president of the Washington-based Institute for Educational Leadership. “The equal billing is fine substantively, but I don’t think it’s politically realistic. It will delimit the practical implications of implementing the report.”

But while commission members and ECS officials acknowledge that the actual implementation of a school governance structure like the second model would require a healthy dose of political courage, they say that some lawmakers are ready to begin exploring new options for school districts, particularly large urban districts that consistently leave students behind.

“We can’t continue to allow multiple generations of kids to fall through the cracks,” said Thomas P. Jandris, the division director for constituent services at the ECS. “We want people to explore whether their systems are working well. Politically, we are more ready than we ever have been before for something like option two.”

The report also lists instances in which state and district officials are already taking steps to change how schools are run.

In Florida, for example, Commissioner of Education Tom Gallagher has assigned a task force to look into how schools are managed at all levels. The task force was formed following the passage of a November 1998 ballot initiative that changed how the state schools chief and state school board members are selected. Thanks to the initiative, after 2002, the state will have a superintendent appointed by the board of education, rather than a popularly elected education commissioner. The state board will no longer be composed of state Cabinet members, but board members appointed by the governor.

And in California, some legislators are looking into crafting a “master plan” for education to define responsibilities clearly.

But as they consider new approaches to school governance, lawmakers must also remember that reshuffled authority does not always translate into improved instruction, said Michael Resnick, an associate executive director at the National School Boards Association in Alexandria, Va.

“Rearranging the power boxes themselves doesn’t produce a better education for kids,” Mr. Resnick said. “It would be a fool’s mission to believe that [changing] school governance by itself is going to be a silver bullet.”

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A version of this article appeared in the November 10, 1999 edition of Education Week as ECS Report Tackles K-12 Governance


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