School & District Management

Pulling in Many Directions

By Lynn Olson — November 17, 1999 23 min read
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Before the 20th century, education was a decidedly local affair. The young American democracy, which had grown up in opposition to the hierarchies of Europe, operated on the simple premise of keeping government limited and close to home. Local citizens decided whether to have schools, raised the money, hired the teachers, and chose which books to use. They also elected lay leaders, in the form of local school trustees, to oversee the job.

That made eminent sense for a widely dispersed, overwhelming rural population, in which education lasted eight years at best, schools had to be within walking distance, and raising funds for even a single one-room schoolhouse was a struggle.

But since then, the voices of school trustees have been joined by a cacophony of players on the education scene: the courts, the federal and state governments, teachers’ unions, and groups representing racial and ethnic minorities, women, the disabled, and others. Policymakers have responded with a raft of laws and regulations that have spawned new bureaucracies and removed decisions further from local communities.

The result, according to Stanford University professor Michael W. Kirst, is a “political system with everybody and nobody in charge.”

It’s messy, untidy democracy writ large. And while it’s a system that makes no one very happy, there is no unified view of the alternative.

“We’re in a big muddle, as we always are,” says Paul T. Hill, a professor of political science at the University of Washington. Indeed, school governance seems to be pushing and pulling in contradictory directions simultaneously.

The Rise of the Expert

On one hand, education governance has never been so centralized: From the state capital come academic standards, tests for every student, and accountability systems that reach down into individual schools. At the same time, states are experimenting with such decentralized, market-driven approaches as charter schools, vouchers, and tuition tax credits.

“I believe that governance is the cutting edge of school reform in America today,” says Donald R. McAdams, a member of the Houston school board. “It is not a silver bullet, but without it, it’s very difficult to do anything else right.”

Writing about the history of American education in 1919, Stanford professor Ellwood P. Cubberley reflected on “how completely local the evolution of schools has been with us.”

“Everywhere,” he observed, “development has been from the community outward and upward, and not from the state downward.”

Some states had as many as 45,000 local school trustees. In many rural counties, noted one writer, there were more than 100 districts, some not more than two miles apart.

Rapid industrialization and a swelling populace, however, soon put a strain on this organically grown system of school governance. As high schools became a permanent fixture of public education, small, rural districts struggled to pay for them. In cities, the large number of local school trustees invited graft and other corruption.

Reformers contended that board members elected by wards advanced their own, parochial interests at the expense of the larger school system. In some cities, an excessive number of subcommittees made it difficult to get things done. In 1905, Philadelphia had 43 elected district school boards with a total of 559 members. The Cincinnati school board had 74 subcommittees.

Many of those elected, lay leaders were immigrants, small-business owners, and other members of the lower-middle and working classes. In contrast, those seeking to change the governance structure typically represented the business and social elites and a new cadre of university-trained education professionals.

“Our American school systems are thoroughly ‘of the people, for the people, and by the people,’ ” Cubberley wrote. “This is both their strength and their weakness. They are thoroughly democratic in spirit and thoroughly representative of the best in our American development, but they also represent largely average opinion as to what ought to be accomplished and how things ought to be done.”

‘Above’ Politics?

The solution, he and others asserted, was to operate schools more like industry. Inefficient, one-room districts would be eliminated or “consolidated” into larger jurisdictions. In the cities, smaller school boards, composed of prominent citizens, would appoint a superintendent, to whom the board would delegate large amounts of authority.

By reducing decentralized, lay control, and eliminating the cronyism and patronage that were then rampant, such a system would place education “above politics” and leave its guidance to experts.

The historian David B. Tyack dubbed this model the “one best system.” And it would dominate education for the first half of the 20th century.

“If you see the way the reformers talk about democracy,” he says, “they talk about the schools being an instrument of democracy run by apolitical experts, with authority in the hands of those who really represent the interests of the children of the United States.” But, he adds, in reality it has been impossible to divorce education from politics: “The question isn’t whether politics, but whose politics.”

A 1927 study showed that the newly centralized boards in urban districts were composed heavily of upper- class professionals and businesspeople. In St. Louis, after reforms were adopted in 1897, the proportion of professionals on the board jumped from 4.8 percent to 58.3 percent, and representatives drawn from big business rose from 9 percent to 25 percent. In contrast, small-business men dropped from 47.6 percent to 16.7 percent, and wage earners from 28.6 percent to none.

It was a model, notes Jerome T. Murphy, the dean of Harvard University’s graduate school of education, that served the growing class of education administrators well. “If they could argue that they were ‘above politics,’ then it gave them much more influence to do the kinds of things that they thought needed to be done,” he says. “I’m not making the argument that this was any sort of diabolical plot. But they just subsumed under their authority lots of things that no longer are assumed to be technical questions of expertise.”

District Consolidation

By 1930, the reorganization of urban school governance was largely complete. Between 1890 and 1920, Tyack points out, the average size of school boards in large cities declined from 21 to seven members. Sometimes, a small contingent of reformers secured statutes or charters from state legislatures that reorganized urban systems without any popular vote.

In contrast, the consolidation of thousands of rural districts was a much slower, more painful process—one that, in many ways, continues today. The people, after all, liked their schools. Although the push to consolidate one-room districts began in 1900, it didn’t gain much momentum until the Great Depression, and didn’t really accelerate until after World War II.

In 1897, a committee on rural education of the National Education Association recommended a thorough reorganization of school districts. Between then and 1905, some 20 states enacted legislation authorizing and encouraging districts to consolidate. Even so, by 1917, the United States had an estimated 195,400 school districts, compared with fewer than 15,000 today.

In those days, state education departments were typically small, sometimes only two or three people. Their work was primarily confined to gathering statistics, preparing reports, rallying public support for education, and distributing what little state aid there was. In 1890, California’s entire education department consisted of the superintendent, a deputy, a statistical clerk, a textbook editor, a textbook clerk, and a porter.

The rise in state power and the shift toward consolidation picked up steam with the Depression. By 1933, local financing—which accounted for about 80 percent of school support—was in a shambles in many districts.

States stepped in to pick up the pieces. Between 1930 and 1940, state support for public education increased from 17.3 percent of the total to 29.2 percent. By 1950, it was 39.8 percent. Today, state funding for K-12 education makes up, on average, the single largest component of local school budgets.

Mandates From On High

With state support came state oversight. In 1915, only five states had adopted a minimum teacher salary, for example. By 1930, 15 had, and by 1955 the number had risen to 34 states. Even so, local decisionmaking retained its pre-eminence until midcentury, when several events would propel both the states and numerous other players more prominently onto the education stage.

After the 1950s, local control of education would remain sacrosanct in theory, but was significantly curtailed in practice. The U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka led to the desegregation of previously segregated school systems. The decision immediately made the court a powerful player on the education scene. It also threw the established practices of local school boards and administrators into doubt.

Then, in 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I. Americans worried that the nation was slipping behind internationally, in part, because of shortcomings in the schools. The following year, Congress passed the National Defense Education Act, which provided federal money to promote better math, science, and foreign- language instruction in the schools. In the 1960s, the civil rights movement and the Great Society-era anti-poverty campaign led to a torrent of education-related legislation in Congress, including the Vocational Education Act of 1963, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965.

“The legislative branch for the first time in our history has assumed in the 1960s a major voice in American educational policy,” wrote James D. Koerner in his 1968 book Who Controls American Education? A Guide for Laymen. Since the Soviet launch of the tiny satellite, he observed, the U.S. Office of Education had nearly tripled in size. “No longer an obscure bureau that cab drivers can’t find,” he quipped, “the Office of Education now has plenty of ‘visibility.’”

In 1930, the federal government provided only 0.3 percent of public school revenues. By 1960, the federal share of school spending had increased to about 4 percent. And by 1965-66, to about 8 percent.

Harold Howe II remembers stepping in as the U.S. commissioner of education in December 1965, during those first, heady days of federal largess. “I picked up at the point when the [ESEA] legislation had been passed but nothing had been done,” he recalls. Writing the regulations and distributing the money according to them, he says, was a complicated undertaking. “It really meant building a whole new bureaucracy in Washington and in the districts of the country. But we pulled it off, and we got it going.”

While state officials fretted that federal activism would usurp state authority in education, the new initiatives contributed to the growth in state government. Before the 1960s, state education departments often were viewed as weak links in the education system, lacking the manpower or the expertise to play a dominant role. As Koerner noted, the states were “better in pushing from the rear than in marching boldly out in front.”

The ESEA would change all that. As part of the good-government reforms of the 1960s, the act encouraged better-managed and -staffed state departments of education. It required state agencies to approve local projects that requested federal aid. And it set aside 1 percent of federal funding specifically to strengthen state education agencies.

With the influx of cash and federal mandates, the state agencies swelled. The number of people employed in them doubled between 1965 and 1970, to 22,000, according to the Education Commission of the States. In states such as California, the expansion was financed almost wholly with federal money.

Moreover, the proliferation of federal programs was mirrored at the state level. By the early 1980s, 20 states administered their own bilingual education programs, and 16 had programs for compensatory education for poor students. States also spent six times as much as the federal government on educating students with disabilities.

At the local level, parallel bureaucracies to administer the new programs flourished. In large urban districts, the bureaucratic staff increased faster than the teaching force. In the mid-1950s, there was an average of one professional administrator for every 18 teachers in the big urban systems. By the late 1970s, the ratio had shrunk to one for every 12.

Other Voices, Other Demands

At the same time, the social militancy of the ‘60s swept through the schools. Suddenly, everyone was fighting for a voice and for an equal opportunity to succeed in America. In the schools, such activism took the form of separate advocacy organizations for racial and ethnic minorities, children with handicaps, and other interests. Teachers were becoming more militant as well. In the 1950s, teachers began to employ such tactics as labor strikes and work stoppages to improve their salaries and working conditions.

In 1960, the United Federation of Teachers led a one-day strike to demand a collective bargaining election for New York City’s 43,500 teachers and then went on to win the election in December 1961.

The ensuing publicity led to huge increases in the national membership of the American Federation of Teachers, of which the UFT was the largest local affiliate. Soon after, the rival National Education Association embraced collective bargaining and more forceful labor tactics. The number of strikes nationwide escalated, reaching 131 in 1969-70. Where school boards could not meet the demands for higher salaries, they bargained over work rules, from class size to the use of classroom aides.

In New York City and other urban centers, minority groups—frustrated with the slow pace of integration and the failure of urban schools to improve—demanded community control. If they could not create a common school for all, they would create separate schools that were more responsive to their needs.

One of the most infamous—and influential—fights occurred in New York City. In May 1967, the Ford Foundation announced that it would provide the financial backing for three experimental school districts, in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and the Lower East Side of Manhattan, to be carved out of the regular school system. The idea was to give parents and other community leaders in those pilot districts a greater say over principal selection, school programs, and other education policies.

From the outset, the historian Diane Ravitch points out in her 1974 book The Great School Wars, the authority granted to the pilot districts was unclear. In early 1968, their governing boards drew up a position paper that demanded, among other authority, total control of all money, the power to hire and fire all school personnel, and the authority to contract for the building and rehabilitation of schools. In some cases, the New York City board of education had never promised such power, Ravitch writes. In other cases, the shift in authority would require a change in state laws.

By April 1968, state legislators in Albany were on the verge of approving a decentralization plan. But it fell far short of the pilot districts’ demands.

An unsuccessful attempt in one of the three districts, Ocean Hill-Brownsville in Brooklyn, to oust teachers who were deemed unsupportive of the project—and the ensuing fight over decentralization—provoked a bitter struggle with the United Federation of Teachers that culminated in a series of citywide strikes in the fall of 1968. Race, and allegations of racism, were never far from the surface. The union was overwhelmingly white; the governing board in Ocean Hill-Brownsville was overwhelmingly black.

“I think it really set back the schools terribly because you ended up with, first of all, wariness and conflict among people who really needed to be cooperating and collaborating to improve the schools,” says Sandra Feldman, who is now the president of the AFT. Feldman, then a UFT field representative, was involved in efforts to set up the pilot districts, and later helped negotiate a decentralization law in the state legislature.

“You had schisms and anxiety between parents and teachers,” she recalls, “between principals and teachers, between superintendents and school boards. And then, we lost any sense of a citywide curriculum, which we had before. That was totally dismantled.”

Finally, in April 1969, the legislature passed a decentralization bill. Some 30 community school boards, which until then had been purely advisory, were given much more power, including the ability to select principals and superintendents. The pilot districts were dissolved, and the fight for community control dissipated.

Based on her research, Marilyn Gittell, a professor of political science at the City University of New York, who had served as a consultant to the Ford Foundation, argues that parents in the pilot districts felt more empowered and positive about the schools as a result of community control. “I think it had a profound influence on the country as a whole,” she says. “I don’t think people remember how schools excluded parents, and I think Ocean Hill- Brownsville blew that open.”

But she admits that, with the exception of Chicago, community control has remained more rhetoric than reality. In 1988, the Illinois legislature’s Chicago School Reform Act gave parent-dominated councils at every school in the city the power to hire and fire the principal, approve a school-improvement plan, and allocate anti-poverty funds.

Feldman is less positive about the legacy of community control in New York. “I think it imploded because it was really divorced from substantive school improvement efforts,” she says. “It was purely a fight over power and governance. It had nothing to do with what it takes to improve schools.”

Erosion of Local Control

By the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, some observers were warning that the large number of pressure groups in education and the increasing tendency of the courts and the state governments to step in were seriously undermining local control.

In a 1979 book, Legislated Learning, Arthur E. Wise warned about the rise in centralized, bureaucratic authority. Collective bargaining by teachers, the demands of special-interest groups, and increased litigation on matters from school finance to desegregation, he wrote, were shifting the locus of control over schools and colleges to the state. The result, he cautioned, would be an “incremental bureaucratic centralization” that was neither flexible nor desirable.

Wise predicted that the winners in that struggle would be elected and appointed officials associated with general government, such as mayors, state legislators, and governors. The losers would be local school boards, teachers, and ordinary citizens.

In 1982, Thomas W. Payzant became the superintendent of the San Diego Unified School District, the second-largest in California. He remembers his surprise at learning that the system had one full-time and one part-time employee representing the district year round in Sacramento.

“That was new to me,” he says. “And then, I very quickly learned that in terms of governance ... that’s where most of the decisions get made. Local school districts really had to have a major presence in Sacramento and be very much a part of the legislative debate in order to make the case for schools.”

Moreover, the most aggressive policymaking on the part of states was yet to come. In the early 1980s, concerns that the United States was falling behind economically spurred a renewed bout of educational policymaking. At the same time, court rulings overturned the school finance systems in 18 states and set the stage for more aggressive state control of education.

Once again, business leaders pushed for improvement, as they had early in the century. But this time, they were allied more with governors and state legislators than with education professionals.

Between 1982 and 1984, more than 200 state-level commissions on education were formed as part of efforts to improve the schools.

And soon, state after state passed omnibus reform packages that addressed everything from the number of course credits required to graduate to the pay and qualifications of teachers. In 1984, Kirst, a former president of the California state school board, complained that the state education code’s five volumes were so thick they would “sprain the back of almost any adult who tried to lift them.”

Many of the new state initiatives were aimed at the core of instructional policy: what should be taught, how, and who would teach it.

That trend has become even more pronounced in the 1990s, as states have set standards for what students should know and be able to do, devised tests to measure their progress, and begun to hold schools, students, and educators accountable for results.

“From a local school district’s standpoint, this development on the standards front should be viewed as good rather than bad news,” argues Gary K. Hart, who served in the California legislature for 20 years and is now the state secretary of education. “If a state has a system of standards-based education that is clear and precise, people know what the rules are, and the system has credibility, I think there will be growing pressure for the state to get out of the rules-based business.”

A Counter-Movement

Today, Americans are closer to a centralized system of governance in education than their forefathers could likely have imagined. The president of the United States has promoted federally supported national achievement tests (albeit voluntary) in reading and mathematics. Even such strong local-control states as Colorado now test students in the core academic subjects and threaten to penalize districts that are not up to par.

“Without question, American school reform is being led at the state level,” says William J. Moloney, the Colorado commissioner of education. “It is being led not by educators, but by elected officials, by governors, by legislators.”

“Although much of the public expresses support for the concept of local control,” adds Ron Cowell, who served in the Pennsylvania legislature for 24 years, “it’s that same public that goes to state capitals and demands that state officials ‘do something’ to fix the education system.”

But while centralization has squeezed the system pretty hard in the past 20 years, it has also generated a counter-movement. The same states that are threatening to take over local districts are also reducing and consolidating their education codes, promoting the creation of charter schools, and permitting families greater freedom to choose public schools. Such policies are meant to increase flexibility and choice in education and to create competition that will spur schools and districts to improve.

They’re also based on the recognition that individual schools can’t be held accountable for results unless they have real control over day-to- day decisions such as staffing and budget allocations.

Eighteen states now have open-enrollment policies that allow parents to send their children to any public school in the state.

Thirty- five states permit the creation of charter schools. And states such as Arizona and Iowa provide tuition tax credits to help parents cover the costs of K-12 education, whether their children attend a public or a private institution.

A few states also are experimenting with vouchers to increase the educational options available for poor children, in particular. In Cleveland and Milwaukee, low- income parents can receive state-financed tuition vouchers to send children to the private or parochial schools of their choice, with the money following the child. In 1999, the Florida legislature agreed to provide vouchers to students in academically failing public schools.

In several cities—notably Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, and Detroit—mayors have been given more direct control of the public schools, rebuffing the traditional notion that education is, or should be, “above politics.”

“I think the choice movement has put a lot of pressure on the existing system to change,” says Terry Moe, a professor of political science at Stanford University and an advocate of the use of market forces in education. “We’re getting more magnet schools, more open enrollment, more charter schools. In another 10 or 20 years, things will look very different because the power structure is being nibbled to death.”

Challenge on All Sides

Some worry, though, that in the rush toward market or quasi-market forces, public education will lose its concern with the common good and focus too much on individual ends. They also worry that inequality in educational opportunities will increase and that permitting each school to do its own thing will result in a lack of standards.

What both the accountability movement and the parental-choice movement have in common is a focus on individual schools as the locus for change and improvement in education. Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, argues that standards-based improvement efforts and competition-based innovations are mutually reinforcing.

Competition and choice put additional pressure on the existing system to improve, he says, and provide for the creation of new and different schools when existing ones cannot meet the standards.

On the other hand, virtually all advocates of school choice agree that well-informed consumers and comparable data are necessary for the marketplace to thrive. Most also acknowledge that schools must make their standards and results public. “Thus,” Finn writes, “we shouldn’t be surprised to see a hybrid strategy appearing in many places.”

This month, for example, the National Commission on Governing America’s Schools, appointed by the Education Commission of the States, recommended two alternative approaches to school governance.

The first approach would build on the existing framework, but clarify the roles and responsibilities of those within the system. States and districts, for example, would focus on establishing clearly defined goals for schools and districts, and providing them with the resources, tools, and supports they needed to succeed.

Most schools would still be directly operated by local districts, but they would have more autonomy and flexibility—such as writing their own budgets and allocating resources as they saw fit—in exchange for greater accountability.

Under the second model, districts would no longer directly run schools. Instead, districts and “chartering boards” would contract with independent entities—such as nonprofit and for-profit organizations, sole proprietorships, and cooperatives—to run schools, in much the same way they now do with charter schools.

Districts would reward schools that fulfilled the requirements of their contracts and withdraw funding from those that did not, but the central administration would essentially be reduced to a contracting agency.

“With the current governance system, good schools are going to remain the exception,” argues Adam Urbanski, a member of the commission and the president of the Rochester (N.Y.) Teachers Association, an affiliate of the aft. “We’re looking for a governance system that would make good schools the norm.”

In some ways, the tumult in school governance that’s occurring now resembles that of the 19th century, when a wide mix of public and private schools competed to provide educational services.

“What you’re seeing is a monolithic education system being challenged from every angle,” Murphy of Harvard says. “And I think that kind of turbulence that’s being created in the short run feels as if it’s a bad thing, but in the long run, it’s a good thing.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 17, 1999 edition of Education Week as Pulling in Many Directions


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