Why I Favor Decentralized Governance of Education

Peter Meyer at the Fordham Institute asked me to contribute a piece to his Board’s Eye View blog to address The BIG Questions on school governance.  Here is what I sent him:

Being against greater national control over education policy is not the same as being for local school districts.  I appreciate Peter Meyer for giving me the opportunity in this space to explain what I am for when it comes to school governance.

Fundamentally, I am for parental control over the education of their children, so I guess that I am for as little governance over education as we can manage.  In my ideal world, which I’ve tried to explain and justify at greater length in this book chapter, parents would be given as much money as is minimally necessary to fulfill their obligation to educate their children and would choose the location, manner, and content of that education.  Since education is just a subset of all of the activities in which parents engage to raise their children to be productive adults, we should defer to parents as much in how they educate their children as how they raise those children more generally.  As long as parents do not neglect or abuse their children, the government should have as little role in education as is possible.

But we don’t live in my ideal world and I have no expectation that we will.  All that I can hope for is that we will inch closer to my ideal rather than further away from it.  With that in mind, I favor governance arrangements that facilitate greater parental choice and control over education over those that would reduce parental choice and control.

So, I have no particular love for local school districts.  They just more closely approximate parental choice and control than does granting more power over education to the state or national governments.  It would be even better in my view to abolish school districts and have every school be like a charter school – a publicly regulated school of choice that would choose its own method and content of education and would have to attract willing families to generate the revenue to pay for it.  But I understand the idea of abolishing school districts and having every school operate as a charter school is only slightly less unrealistic than a virtually unregulated world of parental choice and control.

As unrealistic as making every school a charter school may be, we have been inching in that direction.  A little more than two decades ago we had no charter schools.  Today charter schools constitute nearly 5% of all public schools and educate about 3% of all students.  And the expansion of parental choice and control has been even greater when one considers the fully array of choices that have been introduced over the last two decades, including vouchers, tax credit funded scholarships, virtual schools, inter-district choice, magnet schools, etc…  My ideal world may be an unattainable fantasy, but my vision of gradual progress toward that ideal has been a fairly accurate description of the trends over the last few decades.

But there are some people, primarily edupundits located within the DC beltway, who have very different fantasies about ideal governance arrangements.  Rather than shifting arrangements directly toward greater parental choice and control, they dream about measures granting greater control to state and national authorities.  They rightly point out the defects of local school districts, but they wrongly see the solution in greater centralization of power rather than in the expansion of parental choice and control.

Their justifications for increasing the power of state and national authorities over education are more like empty political slogans than actual intellectual arguments based on principle.  For example, we’ll hear some say that a decentralized system of education cannot meet our needs in the 21st century: “The system of schooling we have today is the legacy of the 19th century — and hopelessly outmoded in the 21st.”  Of course, representative democracy is also a legacy of the 18th and 19th centuries, but that doesn’t mean we need to dispense with it to meet the challenges of our brave new 21st century world.  Saying that the 21st century demands certain skills or governance arrangements is just sloganeering and manipulating people to submit to a proposal, not a real argument.

Some attempt to justify greater centralization in education by saying that our current system is too uncoordinated, contradictory, duplicative, and confusing.  We need the greater coherence, planning, and order that more centralized control can offer.  Do you notice how the central authorities in these proposals are always imagined to be highly competent and benevolent?  They never entertain the very real possibility that the central authority might be coherent, well-planned, and orderly in pursuing something awful.  Those attracted to central planning in education may want to consider how well economic central planning has turned out.

Some attempt to justify granting more power to state and national authorities by looking overseas and claiming that the highest achieving countries have more centralized governance arrangements.  Let’s ignore for a moment that these are not accurate descriptions of how many high-achieving countries have structured their governance – Canada and Australia, for example, are high achieving and have decentralized governance arrangements.  The more fundamental problem is that the “best practices” movement of imitating some of the practices of others who are successful fails to consider what actually caused others to be successful.  Just imitating some of what they do is like the Cargo Cults found in Pacific Islands following WW II, where locals believed that if they built imitations of planes, runways, and control towers, the cargo and plentiful goods that had arrived during the war would return.  They didn’t understand that imitating the trappings of an airport doesn’t cause cargo to arrive any more than imitating the trappings of other countries’ governance arrangements will cause high achievement.

Lastly, some advocates of centralization argue that you actually need to centralize certain things in order to facilitate better decentralized control over other things.  They describe this approach as “tight-loose,” where the central authority assumes greater control over determining and regulating the goals of education and local authorities are then given greater flexibility over the means for meeting those goals.  Of course, ends and means are not so easily separated.  Ends often dictate or at least constrain the selection of means.  In addition, in what fantasy world would the central authority carefully limit its role to setting and regulating ends once it is given authority over an issue?  At least I recognize that my fantasy of parental choice and control is unrealistic.

Dreaming about a world in which parents almost entirely control the education of their children at least provides me with a principle by which I can judge policy proposals.  I favor policies that move us closer to my ideal and oppose those that move us farther away.  But the advocates of greater centralization in education do not appear to be guided by any particular principle, or at least none that they are willing to articulate.  Instead, they seem to mostly spew empty political slogans to manipulate or bully us into ceding more power to central authorities.  I may not love local school districts, but I would prefer them over these central planning fantasies.

11 Responses to Why I Favor Decentralized Governance of Education

  1. Philip Kovacs says:

    I never thought I would agree with you on any point but after 6 years working with a local school district and 15 years studying policy and facing a decision on how and to what end we will school our child, I really want to believe that the sort of utopia implied here is possible….and given that the system was put into place by human beings, there is no reason why we can’t change it. I don’t want to like this post, and maybe I should read it a few more times before saying this, but I love this post. Thank you.

  2. Niki Hayes says:

    This is one of the most powerful articles I have read about the push to centralize education, ineffectual school boards, and the dream of parents actually having power over their child’s education. Thank you for giving me some cogent arguments regarding these issues.

  3. Ayn Marie Samuelson says:

    “It would be even better in my view to abolish school districts and have every school be like a charter school….” I concur.
    The book, Exposing the Public Education System, makes a cogent argument as to why the ed system has failed and advocates for the most local education offering of all – community-run schools to teach our children.
    But what choices we taxpayers and parents have been given appear to be either traditional public schools or mostly corporate run and managed charters. That is really a false choice. Why? Because we can do better than that.
    Taxpayer dollars and community-run schools can offer the best investment for our money, public involvement in decision-making and individualized education for students – with a personal touch. Of course that means transferring control of education from the educational bureaucracy and from corporate control and assuming responsibility for the education of our students.

  4. mmazenko says:

    While it might be blasphemous on this blog to say, I am not going to accept that placing unrestrained faith in parents to effectively choose their way to a world class, productive, and successful education system. It’s kind of like when people challenge some performers/athletes who are glamorizing unhealthy lifestyles for kids. While the Insane Clown Posse might defend itself by saying it’s the parents’ responsibility to raise their kids right, we know as a matter of practicality that far, far, far too many parents are not doing right by their kids.

    Thus, a more centralized system based on community standards is not a bad idea. It’s no different, really, than the logical move from the broad based Articles of Confederation to the more centralized Constitution. In terms of individual choices for parents, we know that most parents when given broad choice in schools, choose the school that is closest and most convenient. And they should always have that luxury. Thus, we owe it to ourselves to simply commit to making sure those neighborhood schools are as effective and trustworthy as possible.

    That said, I do not oppose any growth in the charter school movement. And any charter model should be allowed to expand as much as it is in demand. Lotteries shouldn’t be necessary, as we should let the kids go where they want. But rest assured that many simply want to go to what’s close. Thus, I am not so convinced of the conspiratorial fears of centralized school decisions. Though, I am concerned when those central decisions are geared toward a bachelor-degrees-for-all curriculum. But I would not agree that consistent national standards – like all top industrialized systems have – are a bad idea.

  5. jenni says:

    Coherent, explanatory, understandable – exactly why the Bobby Jindal’s and Jeb Bush’s of the world will completely overlook this outstanding post and continue to advocate for top down control of schools. In today’s topsy-turvey world of wrong is right and right is wrong, it seems completely normal now for the ‘conservatives’ of the world to sell our kids’ educational futures down the river to a centralized, faceless, monopoly funded by our own money – those of us that disagree are salmon swimming futilely against the raging current of personality cult.

    I read an interesting commentary today on Federalism in schools. Government is best when closest to the people it serves. True. The only problem was that the writer then went on to say that while schools should provide this and that and the other thing, the federal government should take up the remainder.

    I see education ‘reform’ as an extension of the failure we have had as a nation in educating our children (adults) on the proper role of government in our lives according to America’s founding and Constitution. When you have a Constitution that gives the central government enumerated powers yet no one bothers to read and find out that education isn’t one of those, it’s not hard to realize our current situation. For Pete sakes, “The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) provides approximately $100 billion for education…” according to Ed.gov’s post from 2009. Yes, OVER 100 BILLION dollars – in a country TRILLIONS of dollars in debt. Go figure.

    If we every get to that brave new world of educating our children free of the clutches of the federal government in our parent-driven community schools, let’s just make sure we give them a very sound understanding of civics and the Constitution. Maybe that way, our children’s children will actually learn a little something from the crummy history we’ve given them so far.

  6. Jay–nothing here about student outcomes. If student outcomes were, on average *worse* under a system with increased parental choice than under one with little parental choice, would you still favor the system with lots of parental choice?

    • Hi Dan — It’s a happy situation that parental choice and control is generally related to higher achievement (and has never been shown to reduce achievement) in randomized control trials. But you ask what I would prefer if the evidence weren’t this happy and I think my answer would be the same as if you asked me whether I would support a society that promoted free speech even if doing so tended to lower GDP growth. I prefer liberty for its own sake and would prefer it even if it were associated with lower achievement or lower GDP growth. But I don’t think I really have to make this choice. Greater parental choice and control tends to promote achievement and free speech tends to promote GDP growth, and these associations are not just accidents. Does this answer the question?

      • mmazenko says:

        Comparing free speech and GDP growth is a bit of fallacious arguing, Jay. Even your association with free speech “generally promoting growth” is dubious. Taiwan, Japan, Korea, and Singapore demonstrated phenomenal growth while suppressing free speech. China has done the same, and still does. Certainly, the US and western democracies with free speech and regulated markets lead the world in many standards of GDP growth. But one does not “generally” equate to the other with any statistical significance. And your focus on data is usually more focused on that.

        Dan asks a valid question about achievement, which is the primary goal of the education system, and has always been the foundation of your educational philosophy. It is a far different question than the issue of free speech and GDP. It has to be about achievement, and you’re argued that countless times. Yet, while many charters are working magic with previously under-served populations, you cannot deny the broader statistical evidence which reveals 2/5 of charters performing worse than the neighborhood. That, I think, is the essence of Dan’s question, and you have pretty much dodged it.

      • Jay, thanks very much, it does answer my question. This issue–what is the primary driver of one’s beliefs and goals–strikes me as essential and under-discussed, so I was excited to see this blog post. I’ll offer a different view on my own blog next week.

      • Greg Forster says:

        Ah, yes, the oldest canard: you don’t think parental control over their own children’s education should be held hostage to how they score on an arbitrarily chosen bubble test, therefore we get to ignore the evidence and demonize you as an ideologue who would willingly destroy everyone’s lives for the sake of an abstract ideology.

        Or at least that’s what I hear in the sneering comment about having uncovered “the primary driver of one’s beliefs.”

        The relationship between evidence and ideology is more complex than that; ask Jay why he believes in liberty and he’ll cite the evidence that convinces him people are better off with liberty. (Or you can just read the book chapter he linked above.)

        The real question is, are you going to make an arbitrarily chosen bubble test the only permissible evidence on whether liberty makes people better off, or are you going to admit the whole body of evidence from human experience?

        See the second half of this.

  7. […] “Why I Favor Decentralized Governance of Education”, Jay P. Greene’s Blog, May 8, 2012. […]

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