Who governs Oklahoma’s public school system?

December 27, 2019

Greg Forster, Ph.D.

The fundamental problem with public education is the lack of accountability. The best school accountability is parental choice, of course, but reforms to the system’s governance structure can also help. Oklahoma should give the governor the power to appoint the state superintendent and should hold educational elections at the same time as normal elections. 

Recently, a number of voices have called for Oklahoma to give the governor the power to appoint the state superintendent of schools. We certainly need stronger governance structures in public school systems, and giving chief executives the power to appoint schools chiefs has a moderately positive track record in places that have tried it. However, when it comes to improving governance of the public school system, Oklahoma should think bigger if it wants big results.

We’ve known for some time now that the fundamental problem with public education is lack of accountability. Much of the time, the system effectively answers to no one. Fortunate parents, blessed with advantages like wealth and professional status, can usually get their local public schools to serve them well. That’s because they have power—as voters, as property taxpayers, as people with the means to hire lawyers, and above all as people with the means to move to another district.

Parents with less power are generally not well served. That’s where accountability has to come in. For more than a generation, the education reform movement has made “accountability” its focus. The main divide is between those who want test-based performance measures and those who want to empower parents through choice.

But there are other ways of strengthening accountability that don’t get as much high-profile attention. Reforms to the governance structure of the public school system can hold it more effectively accountable to the voting public. Such reforms need not replace other policy moves toward accountability; on the contrary, governance reforms would greatly improve the system’s ability to respond positively to the accountability pressure generated by other reforms like parental choice.

Some may balk at the idea that schools should be accountable to the voters. Of course, nobody wants the content of education directly dictated by majority vote. We’d probably replace the study of calculus, Shakespeare, and Martin Luther King with the study of memes, Fortnite, and Taylor Swift.

But at the end of the day, “accountability” means somebody outside the system has to be in charge of making sure the system is working. And even in an environment where you had complete parental choice, the operation of public schools still would need to be steered by the voters—with parents free to go elsewhere if they didn’t like how the voters ran the public schools. If we’re going to have a public school system at all—which we are, for the foreseeable future—that means a political governance structure.

This is why putting chief executives—mayors, governors—in charge of appointing the heads of school systems tends to garner enthusiasm. Chief executives are accountable to the voters in a way that schools chiefs aren’t, even in cases where the schools chiefs are elected. Despite Oklahoma’s recent experience, it’s actually quite unusual for substantial numbers of people to vote in educational elections. Strange as it may seem, if lousy schools are generating voter anger, that’s much more likely to hurt a mayor or governor in their next election, rather than a superintendent.

There is a solid logic to this, given the reality that special interests dominate elections for schools chiefs almost totally. That’s why jurisdictions that have experimented with letting their chief executives appoint their schools chiefs have generally not regretted doing so. New York City’s experiment with mayoral control of schools, for example, is generally viewed as a modest success.

However, even positive results can be disappointing, if they don’t live up to expectations. And that’s what we’ve seen in New York and elsewhere. Bright-eyed, optimistic and reform-minded politicians often imagine that they could impose serious reform on the school system, if only they were in charge. So they campaign to convince the voters to put them in charge of it, promising big results.

That’s how it often works with other government bureaucracies, after all. A mayor or governor is elected with a mandate to clean up a government system that isn’t working—road repairs, for example. They appoint a reformer to redesign the broken system, and the system starts responding better; at least, the worst and most visible problems tend to get cleaned up.

Soon, these would-be reformers discover that the real problems with the school system are so deeply systemic that nobody at the top of the org chart has much power to fix them. A good schools chief can make things better on the margins. But no superintendent actually has much ability to change the system. Even the principal of a given school has limited power over what happens in that school—their ability to hire and fire, set curriculum, or even discipline unruly students is extensively constrained by laws, regulations, and collective bargaining agreements.

If what we want is accountability to voters, why not go to them directly? Letting chief executives appoint schools chiefs is a good idea. But a better idea would be to change the way we elect educational officers, including not just schools chiefs but—even more importantly—local school boards.

Two simple (if politically difficult) reforms would greatly strengthen the accountability of public school systems to the voters who are its ultimate boss. One is to hold educational elections at the same time as normal elections. Typically, educational elections are held in the spring and/or in odd years. This ensures that few voters participate other than those connected to educational special interests. The people who ride the school system as a gravy train show up to vote in educational elections no matter when they are; everyone else misses out, and often people aren’t even aware the election is happening.

There is absolutely no justification for holding educational elections at odd times. It’s purely a tool of unjust oppression, allowing the few who profit from bad education policy to make a buck off the destruction of children’s lives. It has to stop.

A second reform would be to shrink school districts. A century ago, there were over 100,000 school districts in the United States. Today, there are under 15,000. Meanwhile, the U.S. population has exploded.

This makes a huge difference to school governance. The smaller the district, the closer the school board is to the people it’s supposed to serve. Believe it or not, people used to actually know the members of their local school board. They saw them in the supermarket. Do you think that might have contributed to better school governance?

Districts were consolidated with arguments that they would run more efficiently. I never understood why anyone bought that line. Do large organizations generally run more efficiently than small ones? Does anyone’s experience bear that out?

In fact, the empirical evidence suggests that small districts perform better, producing higher educational outcomes. That’s probably a combination of governance being closer to the people and more convenient “residential choice”—the ability of parents to change school districts by moving, which puts pressure on schools to improve or lose students.

Certainly there are some particular functions that school districts can do better on a larger scale. Smaller districts would probably want to purchase supplies more cheaply by forming purchasing collectives, or pool resources to hire experts to handle highly specialized jobs (such as serving rare types of special-needs cases). But there’s no need to actually merge the districts. Let them cooperate where cooperation makes sense, and remain accountable to a genuinely local community.

The best school accountability is parental choice, but there’s no need to wait to start working on other kinds of accountability. Voters need to govern their public schools one way or another. The sooner they can start doing so through cleaner and more local systems, the better off our kids will be.