Despite America’s romantic attachment to “local control of public education,” the reality is that the way it works today offers a worst-of-both-worlds scenario. On the one hand, district-level power constrains individual schools; its standardizing, bureaucratic, and political force ties the hands of principals, stopping them from doing what’s best for their pupils with regard to budget, staffing, and curriculum. On the other, local control isn’t strong enough to clear the obstacles that state and federal governments place before reform-minded board members and superintendents in the relatively few locales where these can even be observed.
Sure, remarkable individuals can sometimes make it work, at least for a while: Michelle Rhee (backed by Adrian Fenty) in the District of Columbia; Joel Klein (backed by Michael Bloomberg) in New York City; Arne Duncan (backed by Richard Daley) in Chicago; Jerry Weast (abetted by a rising budget) in Montgomery County, Maryland. Readers can surely cite additional examples. But these are the exceptions that prove the rule.
The rule is that education-policy decisions are made in so many places—each with some capacity to initiate change but with even greater capacity to block it—that there’s really nobody “in charge.” Some will say that’s a tribute to our traditions of democratic control, checks and balances, pluralism, and federalism. Others will say it’s just a mighty wasteful and ineffectual way to run a system that is widely believed to need a thorough makeover.
Some have described education governance in the United States as a “layer cake,” others as a “marble cake” (because the jurisdictions and zones of control of different governments and agencies are so jumbled). Still others favor the image of a “loosely coupled train” where movement at one end doesn’t necessarily produce any motion at the other. We find a more apt analogy in a vast restaurant or food court with multiple kitchens, each thronged with many cooks, yet with no head chef in command of even a single establishment much less the entire enterprise.
Consider so seemingly straightforward a decision as which teacher will be employed to fill a seventh-grade opening at the Lincoln School, located in, let us say, Metropolis, West Carolina. One might suppose that Lincoln’s principal, or perhaps the school’s top instructional staff, should decide which candidate is likeliest to succeed in that particular classroom. But under the typical circumstance, the most the principal might be able to do is veto wholly unsuitable candidates. (And often not that, considering seniority and “bumping rights” within districts, their collective-bargaining contracts, and, frequently, state law.) The superintendent’s HR office does most of the vetting and placing, but it is shackled by the contract, by state licensure practices (which may be set by an “independent”—and probably union and ed-school dominated—professional-standards board), by seniority rules that are probably enshrined in both contract and state law, and by uniform salary schedules that mean the new teacher (assuming similar “credentials”) will be paid the same fixed amount whether the subject most needed at Lincoln is math or music.
Washington gets into the act, too, with “highly qualified teacher” requirements that constrain the school. By the end of the process, at least a dozen different governing units impede the principal’s authority to staff his school with the ablest (and best suited) teachers available.
And teacher selection is but one of many examples of the “too many cooks” problem. Much the same litany can be invoked for special education, for the budgeting and control of a school’s funds, or for approved approaches to school discipline. (Not to mention a more literal “too many cooks” issue: What to serve for lunch in the school cafeteria?)
What great leader or change-agent would want to become a school principal under these circumstances? Or a local superintendent? Or even a teacher? Well, maybe in a comfy (and probably smug) suburban setting. But not in the places that most need outstanding talent.
No, American education doesn’t need czars or dictators. Separation-of-powers and checks-and-balances are important elements of our democracy. Kids and communities do differ and there needs to be flexibility in the system to adapt and adjust to singular circumstances, changing priorities, and dissimilar needs. But today, our public-education system lacks flexibility and nimbleness of all sorts. Surely that’s not what the founders—or Horace Mann—had in mind. And it’s most definitely not what our children need.
It’s well past time to rethink, re-imagine, and reinvent education governance for the twenty-first century. We’d better get moving.
– Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Michael Petrilli