Who Governs the School System?

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

The best school accountability is parental choice, of course, but reforms to the public school system’s governance structure can also help. OCPA carries my latest, in which I explain why putting mayors and governors in charge of appointing schools chiefs is modestly helpful but not the cure-all it’s usually sold as:

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.

More effective alternatives are a heavy political lift, but worth the heft:

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…

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?

Let me know what you think!

9 Responses to Who Governs the School System?

  1. Michael J Norton says:

    There are issues with School District governance – no question about that. But I would argue that the Districts should be larger, not smaller.

    One of the fundamental weaknesses of District leadership is that unpaid volunteer positions attract some truly weak people many of whom run unopposed. Paid elected officials are only an option with larger system support.

    And then – the economies of scale are inexorable. Bus systems, nutritional services, Special Education networks – those costs bury smaller Districts. They become efficient only when over 20,000 students are involved.

    • Greg Forster says:

      My responses to your arguments – which have been standard talking points for decades – are in the article linked above.

      There’s a substantial empirical literature on this. Smaller districts are associated with better academic outcomes. Google “Tiebout choice.”

    • Ann in L.A. says:

      LAUSD is massive and massively incompetent. I can’t believe there isn’t one of the now unified districts which would not be better off running their own affairs. “Economies of scale” is a joke when it comes to government: it just leads to more graft and bad decisions becoming catastrophic on a massive scale. Leading the evidence would be the massive LAUSD iPad debacle in which vast sums of money went poof.

      • Greg Forster says:

        Routine annual expenses for ordinary items – printer paper – could benefit from collective action. And there are some things – services for rare disabilities – that small districts probably couldn’t handle on their own. But there’s no need to consolidate districts to do these things.

        I’d add that a purchasing consortium of small districts would be much less likely than a single large district to make unwise “white elephant” purchases. It would have more veto points in the decision making process.

  2. Tunya Audain says:

    Family choice in education matters. It is clear to me that Greg Forster would dearly love to see parental choice in education in his lifetime.

    Now, here we have John E Coons, nearly 90 years old, still working for Family Choice and justice for poor families after 50 years in the trenches. The organization T74 produced this video of their interview with Coons. Please watch it:

    Look for these points:
    – “We do not have public schools for poor people.” [He is saying, they are “so-called” public schools because poor families don’t have the choice of moving to effective schools.]
    – “Extend choice, give it to everybody. Choice could save a good share of American families . . . make America less angry and unhappy with itself.”
    – “The problem . . . much of our society is riddled with the effects of making the family weak, its independence, its authority, its responsibility . . . frustrated. And schools have contributed to that, in my view, a great deal. If you take a so-called family and strip it of responsibility and authority, you’ve taken away its dignity and you’ve taken away its effectiveness as a social good. And this society had better look out for all the ways that we have treated our families who are poor, who deserve authority. We have to make sure that they are not stripped of that dignity.”

    John Coons, in a 2002 interview, talked about poor people being stripped of their sovereignty and said: “It’s a shame that there are no social science studies on the effect of choicelessness on the family. If you are stripped of power—kept out of the decision-making loop—you are likely to experience degeneration of your own capacity to be effective, because you have nothing to do. If you don’t have any responsibilities, you get flabby. And what we have are flabby families at the bottom end of the income scale.”

    Coons wrote books on topic and was instrumental in the Serrano Case.

    Now, Greg, I would say that it is obviously timely to be proactive about Parent Choice. Could there not be a Symposium that gathers people on the topic? Collect some papers. Publish them, or excerpts, on a website? Get someone to do an inventory of where we’re at with this topic in North America. People from various efforts — charter schools, home education, Education Savings Accounts, Scholarship Programs, etc. — would have input and attendance.

    Such an effort would not only help the cause move forward but would, at the same time, put the education system on notice that such an effort is being mobilized.

    • Greg Forster says:

      Plenty of that kind of thing has been done. I organized one such conference myself and co-edited the collection of papers. The title is Freedom and School Choice in American Education.

      The intellectual battle over choice is long over. We won. The battle we need to win now is political, not intellectual. Jay often compares it to the tobacco lobby – the scientific debate over whether smoking is addictive and causes cancer was won a long time ago, but it took something like two generations for the politics to keep up. The tobacco lobby shills looked like fools going around insisting smoking didn’t cause cancer, but the lobby still had big money and other sources of political strength. Same basic situation here.

      Thanks for your enthusiasm and your thoughtful engagement!

  3. harriettubmanagenda says:

    1 Parent Control
    1.1 In Hawaii, juvenile arrests FALL when school is NOT in session.
    1.2 Across all US States, the correlation (age-start, score), where “age-start” is the age at which States initiate compulsory attendance at school, and “”\score” is 4th or 8th grade NAEP Reading or Math score, is positive; later is better (there are interesting exceptions).
    2. Small Districts:
    2.1 Across all districts over 15,000 enrollment, the correlation ($/pupil, enrollment) is positive; large districts cost more, per pupil, to operate.
    2.2 Across all US States, the correlation (%15K+dist, score), where %15K+dist” is the fraction of total State enrollment which attends districts over 15,000 enrollment and “score” is NAEP 4th or 8th grade Reading or Math scores, is negative; large districts drag scores down (there are interesting exceptions).
    Beyond a very low level, there are no economies of scale at the delivery end of the education industry as it currently operates.
    3. GED at any age.
    Compulsory unpaid labor is slavery. Children will work for freedom.
    4. Credit by exam
    Even if they must remain on campus to age 18, children will work for the freedom to run around the track or hang out in the Auto Shop teacher’s class.
    5. Satyagraha
    Parents instruct their children quietly to ignore teachers. Two such students in each classroom would destroy the NEA/AFT/AFSCME cartel.

    • Greg Forster says:

      School choice would largely eliminate the need for #3-4 because students capable of achieving proficiency early would have access to schools that could give them advanced instruction worth their time.

      #5 is playing a dangerous game. Children who grow up perceiving conflict between the authority figures in their lives have great difficulty internalizing norms.

  4. Malcolm Kirkpatrick says:

    (Forster): “Children who grow up perceiving conflict between the authority figures in their lives have great difficulty internalizing norms.”
    There is no conflict. There is only one authority, the parents. The norm: “believe everything that your government tells you”, is far more dangerous. The institution which creates this conflict, the State-monopoly school system, deserves demolition. Ahimsa. Satyagraha.

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