Who's in Charge Here?: The Tangled Web of School Governance and Policy [NOOK Book]


Behind the scenes, a revolution is taking place in primary and secondary education. Once thought sacrosanct, the principle of local lay control has come under growing attack. In the 1970s and 1980s, governors sought greater influence by promulgating academic standards and even taking over failing schools. Mayors soon followed, with some wresting control of struggling local school systems. Atop this, the president and Congress greatly extended their reach into U.S. classrooms with enactment of the No Child Left ...

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Who's in Charge Here?: The Tangled Web of School Governance and Policy

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Behind the scenes, a revolution is taking place in primary and secondary education. Once thought sacrosanct, the principle of local lay control has come under growing attack. In the 1970s and 1980s, governors sought greater influence by promulgating academic standards and even taking over failing schools. Mayors soon followed, with some wresting control of struggling local school systems. Atop this, the president and Congress greatly extended their reach into U.S. classrooms with enactment of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which requires annual reading and math tests in grades 3 through 8, tougher yardsticks to measure whether pupils are making sufficient progress, and penalties for schools that persistently fall short.

The result is a spider's web of responsibility. It is difficult, if not impossible, to figure out where accountability lies. Not only have municipal, state, and federal authorities reasserted control over the separate education government that the nation long ago created, but an array of other institutions including the courts, community-based organizations, and education management companies are also deeply involved in school decisions. These trends have created a growing gap between those who make education policy and those responsible for the results. What's more, they have contributed to widespread confusion about how to fix public education.

In Who's in Charge Here? some of the finest minds in education cut through the confusion to analyze key issues such as the Constitution's role in allocating responsibility for education, the pros and cons of growing federal control, how to ensure a supply of talented teachers for the underprivileged, the impact of the school-choice movement, and the expanding non-academic role of schools. Other chapters explore the history of U.S. education governance and propose principles for creating a new system that especially benefits the children who are most in need.

The question of who should be in charge of America's schools is likely to occupy the nation for years to come. Based on extensive scholarship and practical experience, Who's in Charge Here? is an important contribution to this critical debate.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780815796657
  • Publisher: Brookings Institution Press and the Education Commission of the States
  • Publication date: 9/27/2004
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 303
  • File size: 546 KB

Meet the Author

Noel Epstein , former education editor of the Washington Post, is a consultant to the Education Commission of the States. He is the author of Language, Ethnicity, and the Schools Institute for Educational Leadership, 1977, an influential work in the bilingual education debate.

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Read an Excerpt

Who's in Charge Here?

The Tangled Web of School Governance and Policy

Brookings Institution Press

Copyright © 2004 Brookings Institution Press and the Education Commission of the States
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8157-2472-1

Chapter One

Introduction: Who Should Be in Charge of Our Schools?


It is only common sense that institutions need to have someone in charge, someone who sets goals and strategies and is accountable for results. In business and finance it is the chief executive officer; in the military, the generals and admirals. If one were to sketch an organizational chart of the American elementary and secondary education systems, however, one would discover that there is no such line of responsibility. Instead one would find something closer to a spider's web that has grown increasingly tangled in recent years-a web in which it is difficult, if not impossible, to figure out whether anyone is in charge. This is arguably the most fundamental flaw confronting our schools, with implications for all else that happens (or does not happen) in American public education.

Although Americans rank education as one of their highest priorities, they have little understanding of this central issue, of how this system of tangled authority came to be or what might be done about it. Few are aware, for example, that the nation long ago created a separate government for education, consisting chiefly of state and local education boards and superintendents, or that this was supposed to shield schools from interference by mayors, governors, or other political figures. Nor is it widely appreciated that a transformation-a "revolution," some say-is occurring in this arrangement as the general government reasserts its authority over schools. Governors and state legislators began the process in the 1970s and 1980s with the advent of state academic standards and tests, state takeovers of failing schools, and other policies. Then some mayors began wresting control of struggling local school systems. Now the president and Congress have greatly expanded their reach into U.S. classrooms with the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB), requiring, among other things, annual reading and math tests for all pupils in grades 3 through 8, tougher yardsticks to measure whether they are making sufficient progress, and penalties for schools that persistently fall short.

In light of this, it is not surprising that even knowledgeable observers sometimes scratch their heads over the difficulty of assigning responsibility in the education system. During the 2000 presidential race, for example, when dramatic increases in Washington's role in education were being proposed, one longtime education policymaker said: "Just who is really accountable, and for what? It is confusing enough today with people not being certain if the buck stops with the local school board, the local superintendent, the state legislature, the governor, the state board, the mayor or, in many states, the city/county council."

The organizational chart actually is even more complex than that, not only because of the crisscrossing lines needed to connect a multitude of education programs across government levels, but also because others have an important voice in school affairs. Federal and state courts, for example, obviously have a large say, shaping issues ranging from desegregation to equitable school financing to the treatment of disabled students and language minorities. Outside agencies-various federal and state departments as well as local health groups, community-based organizations, social workers, and others-are engaged in school-based programs aimed at drug and alcohol abuse, school killings, sexually transmitted diseases, and other health and social issues. Education management organizations have emerged to run both traditional public schools and quasi-independent public charter schools, which are part of the broader school choice spectrum that ranges from home schooling to market-based mechanisms like vouchers for private school tuition. (Indeed, some advocates contend that vouchers are needed precisely because our messy democratic governance system makes it impossible for public schools to set and pursue sensible goals.)

As if this were not enough, determining education accountability is further complicated by the fact that the public has scarcely any idea of who holds key education positions. Ted Sanders, president of the Education Commission of the States, was at various times the chief state school officer of Nevada, Illinois, and Ohio. If you ask him how many people in those states ever knew who he was, he replies, "Do you mean other than my wife and children?" As a rule, state boards of education are even less visible to the citizenry, if that is possible, and the public has little interest in local school board elections, with turnouts typically of no more than 15 percent of eligible voters.

Policymakers versus Practitioners

Despite all of the uncertainty about who is charge, however, some things are quite clear about U.S. school governance There is no doubt, for example, that the dominant trend has been to centralize power over education in state and federal hands. While local officials still have important management roles, the erosion of the American tradition of local school control increasingly means that they are implementing other people's goals and priorities.

It also is evident, as Stanford University's Michael Kirst notes in "Turning Points" (chapter 2 of this volume), that shifting school governance is a backdoor way of shifting school policy. Specifically, as trust has dwindled in local school systems' ability to raise student achievement, state and federal officials generally have embraced what are called standards-based reforms-aligning curriculums, teacher standards, and exams with specific academic goals and increasing testing to hold schools accountable-as well school choice programs.

Finally, a central consequence of the shifts in governance is a growing gap between those who make policy and those responsible for results. For example, governors, together with state legislators, have been primary forces in school policy for a generation, and many have won praise for initiatives to raise student achievement. One would be hard pressed, however, to find governors who are blamed when academic weakness continues in the face of their policies. The same holds for presidents. George W. Bush's education plan, for example, was central to his 2000 election victory, and passage of NCLB, which is driving school policy throughout the country, represented his first success in Congress. Yet there is little chance of the president being blamed if students' test scores do not rise appreciably as a result.

Granted, NCLB is being criticized on other grounds-particularly federal meddling and insufficient funding-even by Bush's fellow Republicans. In early 2004, for example, the GOP-controlled Virginia House adopted a resolution, 98 to 1, assailing NCLB requirements as "the most sweeping intrusions into state and local control of education in the history of the United States" and arguing that they would cost Virginia hefty sums. In Utah, the Republican-controlled House adopted a bill refusing to implement NCLB "except where there is adequate federal funding." That approach was modeled on an initiative in Vermont under which several local school districts had already refused NCLB funds, as have several other districts in Connecticut. As of February 2004, about a dozen states were rebelling against the law. Even with these attacks, as well as those by Democratic critics, however, the Bush education program is not expected to play the kind of central role in the 2004 presidential race that it did in 2000.

In short, despite decades of proposed solutions by governors and presidents -including governors like Bill Clinton and George W. Bush who rose to the presidency with important help from education issues-criticism of the schools persists and blame goes to others. With this kind of arrangement, advancing new plans for education might seem like a politician's vision of heaven: it triggers applause, helps to win elections, and carries relatively little risk if conditions show no notable improvement. In fairness, though, that misses the mark. Not only are many political figures genuine in their education concerns and strategies, but, with rare exceptions, they have no direct control over what happens to their policies. The president is not responsible for operating public schools, and governors generally do not control those who implement the policies that they and state legislators fashion. State education departments are run by chief state school officers, who report, as a rule, to state boards of education, not to governors, just as local superintendents in most cases report to separately elected boards of education, not to mayors or county executives. That is how it works when you have two governments.

Winds of Change

Some moves are afoot to correct this situation, to put political figures fully in charge-a step that some of us consider long overdue. The main reasons for having a separate education government, after all, long ago ceased to exist. While a measure of cronyism in school spending may continue no matter who is in charge, jobs for principals and teachers are not going to become prizes of the political spoils system again, as they commonly were at the turn of the twentieth century. Similarly, the old notion that education should be "above politics" is sheer nonsense. Political leaders obviously are deeply involved in-indeed, are dominating-education policies. They just are not accountable for the results (though they consider accountability good for everyone else).

This is beginning to change. In fall 2003, for example, voters in New Mexico approved a constitutional amendment to put the general government back in charge, shifting school control from the state board of education to Governor Bill Richardson. Similarly, in early 2004 Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich caused a stir by proposing to strip authority over the schools from that state's board and put it directly under his control. These steps at the state level come amid local-level transfers of direct school control from boards of education to mayors in a handful of cities, including Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, New York, Detroit, and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and efforts by the mayor of the District of Columbia to join the group. In fact, mayors in general are becoming more involved in education, and the public already seems to be holding them accountable. According to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, education has become "a pivotal issue in reelection" even when mayors do not directly control the schools. Perhaps this will encourage more mayors to reach for the school reins, at least in cities in which school dissatisfaction runs high and such control is feasible (though public support for more mayoral takeovers in general currently is low).

Gubernatorial or mayoral control certainly is not a cure-all for education; there are no magic bullets. Some such efforts may well yield poor results, as was long the case when Baltimore's mayor held power over that city's schools. The point is that such direct political control would provide much greater visibility and accountability for academic results, as well as helping with other important challenges, particularly the management of multiplying before-school and after-school programs, school-based health clinics, early childhood initiatives and battles against teen pregnancy, student suicides, and other social ills. State and local boards of education and superintendents simply do not have the cross-agency authority that is needed to coordinate these and other programs for children and youth.

Nor is it a simple matter to hold mayors, governors, or presidents accountable. Though new education policies might be enacted and implemented in a single term of office, for example, they cannot be evaluated in so brief a period; at reelection time, it is not possible to say whether the program at hand is effective or not. Because of this time lag, it would be valuable, at the state and local levels, for any school board that loses control over education not just to become an advisory body but also to issue annual report cards that grade progress under the governor, mayor, or county executives. At the federal level, a similar task might be assigned to an agency like the Government Accountability Office. Such report cards are, after all, essentially what NCLB requires of schools across the nation. It seems only reasonable to apply the idea to the political figures who are shaping U.S. education policy.

One Cannot Rely on the Constitution

While making more prominent political figures accountable for school performance at the federal, state, and local levels would, in my view, be an important step, it would not alter the balance of power over education among levels of government. That was the main issue that prompted the essays in this volume. In particular, the striking increase in the federal role engineered by the Bush administration gave rise to the idea of trying to clarify the responsibilities of all parties in education and of basing the work on the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution, which is cited almost ritually in the education community as evidence that states are in charge of schools. The thought was to prepare papers that would lead, for the first time, to Tenth Amendment guidelines for U.S. school governance.

However, in the scholarly spirit of following the evidence wherever it might lead, one paper swiftly put that idea to rest: "The Tenth Amendment and Other Paper Tigers," by James Ryan of the University of Virginia Law School (chapter 3 in this volume). Among other things, this persuasive work on the porous legal boundaries of school governance makes clear that contrary to common belief the Constitution does not simply leave authority over education to the states or restrain federal power over schools.

True, the Tenth Amendment says that "powers not delegated to the United States, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people." Since the Constitution is silent on education, the states would seem to be in charge. But that is misleading, Ryan observes, because it overlooks Congress's constitutional power to spend for the general welfare-and to tie conditions to that spending. He states, in fact, that "the Tenth Amendment is no match for Congress's spending powers," that so long as states accept federal education funds, "Congress can do pretty much as it pleases with education, even establish a national curriculum and a national exam, without running afoul of the Constitution." Some doubtless would like to curtail such congressional power over education, but Ryan warns them to be careful of what they wish for, because the result would not simply be corresponding gains for state or local authorities.


Excerpted from Who's in Charge Here? Copyright © 2004 by Brookings Institution Press and the Education Commission of the States . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

1 Introduction : who should be in charge of our schools? 1
2 Turning points : a history of American school governance 14
3 The Tenth Amendment and other paper tigers : the legal boundaries of education governance 42
4 Recovering from an accident : repairing governance with comparative advantage 75
5 A solution that lost its problem : centralized policymaking and classroom gains 104
6 Less than meets the eye : standards, testing, and fear of federal control 131
7 A teacher supply policy for education : how to meet the "highly qualified teacher" challenge 164
8 Multiple "choice" questions : the road ahead 228
9 The American kibbutz? : managing the school's family role 256
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