Why Government Governs Its
Schools Wrong (And How to Fix It)
Oklahoma policymakers should take a hard look at school board elections,
building-level autonomy, principal training, transparency measures,
and other public-school governance reforms.
By Greg Forster
For two generations, “accountability” has been the rallying cry of the education reform movement. Tensions are now increasing in the movement between advocates of decentralized, choice-based accountability and advocates of centralized, test-based accountability. However, those are not the only two ways to hold schools accountable. The movement should also take a hard look at governance reform.
Governance reform means changing the system’s internal decision-making and authority structures. Parental choices and academic standards enforced by tests are both ways of placing external pressure on the system to perform. We can also do a lot of good by changing the shape of the system’s own workings. School board elections, building-level autonomy, principal training, transparency measures, and breaking up our bloated school district system are all places where there’s a lot of potential improvement.
As a champion of school choice, I feel weird writing an article about how to run the government school monopoly better. But of course there’s no reason we can’t pursue both choice and governance reform. In fact, the two would be mutually reinforcing—the external pressure to improve created by choice would incentivize and legitimize internal reforms.
Besides, there’s good precedent for this kind of thing. There’s a notorious section in Aristotle’s Politics in which he lays out his advice for tyrants—how to be a more effective tyrant, how to keep your iron grip on power. Political philosophy professors generally prefer to keep it hushed up; we don’t mind that stuff from charming rogues like Machiavelli, but Aristotle is supposed to be a classier kind of guy. However, Aristotle wrote about tyranny because he wanted us to understand its nature (“no one becomes a tyrant to keep warm”), and we should be glad he did.
Probably the biggest potential area for improvement through governance reform is local school district elections. While states and the federal government have taken an increasing role in education in the last generation, the large majority of real decision-making is still local. And the most effective change would be a change at the top of the school districts—school boards and top district officials—from which the effects of reform would have the greatest reach.
One of the most important things to understand about democracy is that highly concentrated interests are generally more powerful than widely diffused interests. That’s why there are so many government boondoggles; the corn farmers get millions of dollars from ethanol subsidies while you and I each lose only a few bucks, so they have much more incentive to protect the subsidies than we have to fight them. This also explains why politicians pay so much attention to issues that most voters don’t care about—those who do care about those issues care about them a whole lot, so they invest time and money in getting political attention.
This is why school districts are so widely dysfunctional. Their boards and top offices have been colonized by allies of the teacher and staff unions and other special interests. Parents do care a lot about schools, but the people and organizations who make their living from education care about them even more intensely.
Still, every 10 to 15 years or so, parents get riled up enough about education to pass major reforms even over the resistance of hardened special interests. While school choice remains the most promising educational reform, in places where choice is less likely to succeed reformers can look at ways to dislodge school boards and district officials from special-interest control.
While the details may look different in every district, the key reform would be to hold all school district elections at the same time as presidential elections, so people who show up to vote for president will also participate. Typically, school district elections are held in the spring, held in odd years—held just about any time other than the normal election season. That’s so the educational special interest groups will show up to vote, and no one else.
There is also a lot we can do to increase what is called “building-level” autonomy. That’s the authority of principals to run their own schools. Principals are extensively tied down by regulations, by union contract requirements, and by informal but very strong expectations in the culture of the system that principals don’t have the power to change much. We expect these people to deliver better schools but we don’t do much to increase their power to deliver.
Those who are familiar with the way leaders run other kinds of organizations—whether for-profit, non-profit, or even branches of government—are often shocked when they discover how handcuffed school principals are. I’ll never forget the state legislative hearing in which I heard a principal asked why she left her position running a regular public school to run a charter school. “Because now I can hold a meeting,” she said, exasperated.
While we’re talking about principals, another promising idea would be alternative principal certification. Research suggests that the dominant system for training teachers is essentially worthless; teachers with alternative certification and even no certification produce students with similar outcomes. Yet the special interests howl in protest at any hint of expanding alternative paths into the profession—because the dominant teacher training model puts money in their pockets. (Remember that the next time you hear them wail about “teacher shortages.”)
Education reformers have done great things with alternative teacher training and certification. Well, we train our principals through the same lousy system that fails to do much good training teachers. Why? Why not create new alternatives, this time focused not on teaching but on executive leadership training for schools—preferably with some training on how to get around special-interest obstacles to good school management?
Transparency is another area of major need, especially in finances. Our government school system is enormous, and almost totally opaque. Its finances are kept in outrageously Byzantine ways. If you doubt it, go try to find out even a simple piece of information, like how much money your state spends per student on special education.
These anti-transparency accounting systems keep power and influence concentrated in the hands of the few people who know them really well. Everyone who wants to do anything that requires this information—even legislators considering budget decisions—has to come crawling to the tiny elite who know anything about school finances. But don’t worry, I’m sure there isn’t a horrifying morass of waste and fraud concealed behind the curtain.
One potentially very powerful reform, but the one that would probably be the hardest to get, would be breaking up our huge school districts. America once had more than 100,000 school districts. Their small size kept them close to their neighborhoods and communities, so people knew what was going on and could take action much more easily if there was a problem.
It also created choice-based pressure to improve. Smaller school districts meant parents had much more choice between districts when they decided where to live, so districts had to perform well or lose families to other neighborhoods. Social scientists call this “Tiebout choice” (pronounced “tee-bow,” like the quarterback), and empirical research finds that smaller district size improves educational results.
Today, we have fewer than 15,000 school districts. For generations, the unions have been pushing for consolidation of districts, and getting it. They offer up lots of false promises about efficiency and eliminating redundancies, but their real motive is to insulate decision-makers from accountability and (above all) eradicate parental choice.
The barriers to governance reform are serious. The special interests want their gravy train, and state and federal governments enjoy taking power away from local communities. But school choice has racked up an impressive list of victories in spite of similarly strong resistance. A push for governance reform might do the same—and it might unite education reformers who are divided over other strategies for accountability.
Greg Forster (Ph.D., Yale University) is a senior fellow with EdChoice. He is the author of six books, including John Locke’s Politics of Moral Consensus (Cambridge University Press, 2005), and the co-editor of three books, including John Rawls and Christian Social Engagement: Justice as Unfairness. He has written numerous articles in peer-reviewed academic journals, as well as in popular publications such as The Washington Post and the Chronicle of Higher Education.