Sensible K–12 Governance and Why It Probably Won’t Happen - EdChoice

Sensible K–12 Governance and Why It Probably Won’t Happen

Daarel Burnette of Education Week wrote a provocative piece earlier this month titled “Face It, School Governance Is a Mess.” His core argument is tough to dispute: No one knows who is in charge of K–12 education.

If you don’t like something going on in your child’s school, who do you go to? Your local school board? They might very well tell you that the only reason the school is doing it is because the state makes them. Go to the state board of education, and they’ll blame the legislature. Go to the legislature, and they’ll blame the federal government and its mandates. Go to the feds and they’ll blame your local school board, and you’ll be right back where you started.

America has a patchwork of education governance because America evolved organically over time. Unlike many of our European counterparts who had been established as countries with relatively stable borders, languages and customs for hundreds of years before they tried to create uniform primary and secondary education systems, America built the plane as we flew it.

No one knows who is in charge of K–12 education. If you don’t like something going on in your child’s school, who do you go to?

America is also an incredibly diverse nation. Geographically, racially, ethnically, religiously, there is simply not agreement as to what values should be taught in school, what literature should be read, and how our complicated history should be taught. The larger the area or population we try to lump together under one political or administrative structure, the more likely there will be different groups fighting for control and pushing for their views to be that of the polity.

There has always been a push and pull between centralization and decentralization in education. Centralizers have argued that local communities are too parochial, discriminate against minorities in the community and are backward in what they teach or how they teach it. De-centralizers have argued that distant bureaucrats have limited ability to actually get schools to do what they want them to do and more often simply push more bureaucratic box checking rather than real strategies to improve education.

The problem is that both sides of this debate have a point. Is there a way to cut this Gordian Knot? Perhaps.

What if we flattened the organizational structure of the education system?

That is, what if we had the state make only a small number of key decisions? The state would set the amount of money that students would receive and would identify where students would be allowed to spend that money. It could set weights for various disadvantages that students might bring to the classroom (so more money for students with special needs or English language learners or for students from disadvantaged backgrounds). That money would be deposited in a flexible-use spending account for the student to spend at an individual school or amongst several education providers. The state would regulate what information schools that receive students would be required to publicize and would set regulations to avoid fraud and mistreatment of students.

After that, students would be free to take that money to the school of their choice. Some of those schools might operate independently, answering to their own board of directors. Others might choose to band together in independent networks. Others might choose to function like school districts and elect board members. It would be up to the schools to decide what their optimal organizational structure would look like.

This could be the best of both worlds.

Big questions around how much money students receive would be resolved at the state level (which could be supplemented by federal dollars for particularly expensive-to-educate students). And if families had a problem with how much money students received, they would know exactly where to go. All of the other decisions would be made at a hyper-local level, the school. Rather than trying to force an orthodoxy on a community, different schools with different models would be allowed to operate and parents and children could match with the school that best aligns with their values and expectations.

The powerful interests that control the status quo have reasons to keep the system going the way that it is, and while there is a great deal of frustration around the current arrangement, there is not, as of yet, a groundswell of folks who want to change it.

Now, I should stop here and say this probably is never going to happen.

The powerful interests that control the status quo have reasons to keep the system going the way that it is, and while there is a great deal of frustration around the current arrangement, there is not, as of yet, a groundswell of folks who want to change it.

I simply offer a different vision to expand our thinking on the issue.

What are the functions that state-level governments can do well and should thus continue at them? What are the functions that local governments do well and should thus continue at them? What are the functions that the federal government does well and should thus continue at them? What are each of these levels of governance bad at and should thus stop doing?

It is by wrestling with those questions and looking long and hard at the answers (and the tradeoffs inherent in those answers) that we can start to get our arms around education governance in America and start making the smaller changes to nudge it in a better direction.

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