Beyond the School District

Chester E. Finn, Jr.

Fall 2011

To anyone concerned with the state of America's schools, one of the more alarming experiences of the past few decades has been the sight of waves of innovative reforms crashing upon the rocks of our education system. Charter schools have popped up all over the landscape; vouchers are being implemented in more and more places; massive federal initiatives like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top have invested billions of dollars in fixing our schools. And yet the results remain dismal: Millions of children still cannot read satisfactorily, do math at an acceptable level, or perform the other skills needed for jobs in the modern economy.

Why this persistent failure? One major cause is clearly our deeply flawed system for organizing and operating public schools. Currently, our approach to school management is a confused and tangled web, involving the federal government, the states, and local school districts — each with ill-defined responsibilities and often conflicting interests. As a result, over the past 50 years, obsolescence, clumsiness, and misalignment have come to define the governance of public education. This development is not anyone's fault, per se: It is simply what happens when opportunities and needs change, but structures don't. The system of schooling we have today is the legacy of the 19th century — and hopelessly outmoded in the 21st.

But given that our method of school governance is so significantly responsible for what ails American education today, it has received surprisingly little attention. Efforts to address the problem elicit either boredom — governance is passé in the reform world, especially compared to hotter fads like vouchers, tenure, and merit pay — or eye-rolling, as many argue that, even if school-system structure and governance pose problems, trying to fix them is politically futile.

Yet to fail to confront these malfunctions is to accept the glum fact that even the most urgent and earnest of other reform efforts cannot make meaningful improvements to public education. And we cannot afford such complacency. Only by seeking to understand how we came to operate schools in such a haphazard way, what particularly ails our governance structures now, and how they might be reformed can we restore sanity and efficiency to America's public schools.


The main structures of modern American public education generally date to the 19th century (and in some cases even earlier), when individual towns and families paid essentially all the costs of operating whatever schools they had. Indeed, education in the early days was an entirely local affair, and so quite varied: Some towns had schools, others didn't; some paid for them with taxes, others with bushels of wheat, church tithes, or tuition charges levied on parents. Just as individual communities decided whether and how to operate schools, so did individual families determine which, if any, of their sons and daughters would attend school (and for how long). If a child was poor, he ordinarily got little or no schooling unless someone took pity on him and paid for his education.

This started to change in the mid-19th century, when states began requiring children to attend school, at least for a few primary grades. Massachusetts led the way in 1852, and New York followed a year later. By 1918, every state had some sort of "compulsory attendance" law on its books. With such requirements came an obligation on the state's part to ensure that schools were available so that these requirements could be fulfilled. This demand drew states into both the financing and governance of primary and, in time, secondary education.

The deepest imprint on today's school-governance structures, however, may have been left by the Progressive Era — when it was deemed important to "keep politics out of education" so as to avoid the taint of patronage and party. According to the prevailing wisdom, it was better to entrust the supervision of public education to expert professionals and independent, non-partisan boards that would attract disinterested community leaders to tend to this vital civic function. Mayors and aldermen were to be kept at bay, lest public education grow entwined with other government functions and agencies, and thus become contaminated.

At the state level, too, the governance structures devised for education were meant to serve as a buffer from conventional politics. Most states established their own boards of education, some with members appointed by the governor to fixed terms, some elected. Each of these boards then hired a "commissioner" or "superintendent" of education, ordinarily a career professional, to head the education department — a state agency, to be sure, but seldom part of the governor's "cabinet" and rarely subject to his direct control.

A few of these state-level structures pre-dated the Progressives. For instance, the New York State Board of Regents — with members chosen by the legislature — was launched in 1784 (though its mandate at the outset was limited to higher education). Massachusetts created its state board of education — focused on primary and secondary schooling — in 1837. Its establishment was a response to Governor Edward Everett's admonition to lawmakers that, while locally operated "common" schools were well and good,

The school houses might, in many cases, be rendered more commodious. Provision ought to be made for affording the advantages of education, throughout the whole year, to all of a proper age to receive it. Teachers well qualified to give elementary instruction in all the branches of useful knowledge, should be employed; and small school libraries, maps, globes, and requisite scientific apparatus should be furnished. I submit to the Legislature, whether the creation of a board of commissioners of schools, to serve without salary, with authority to appoint a secretary, on a reasonable compensation, to be paid from the school fund, would not be of great utility.

The very first secretary of that "board of commissioners" was Horace Mann, often termed the father of public education in the United States.

In the years that followed, as state constitutions were written and rewritten, they included provisions that explicitly tasked the states with the responsibility of educating their own citizens. The wording of these clauses varies considerably; typical examples are Ohio's charge to its legislature to "secure a thorough and efficient system of common schools throughout the state" and Texas's assignment to its lawmakers to "establish and make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools." Whatever the phrasing, every state constitution now includes some provision to this effect.

But though states bear formal responsibility for public education, all save Hawaii have opted to deliver schooling through "local education agencies" (LEAs), also known as school districts. The states did not create LEAs out of whole cloth: They inherited them from the earlier era of community-based, locally financed education. And their configurations vary just as greatly as our communities. In some states, they coincide with counties, while in others they are coterminous with cities or townships. Rarely, however, are LEAs actually governed directly by these political entities.

Because of this history, and owing to differences among states, LEAs vary greatly in size and number. Today, Illinois has 1,100 of them, Maryland just 25. LEAs have also been shaped by decades of consolidation. In 1930, for instance, the United States contained a staggering 130,000 LEAs, many responsible for just one school each. Today, we have only one-tenth that number: There were 13,809 LEAs in 2008, responsible for 98,706 schools. This would suggest that, on average, each district in America is responsible for seven schools. But in another instance of the unevenness of LEAs, this figure is deeply deceptive, as some school systems (mostly in large cities) enroll more than 200,000 students each while 80% of America's LEAs educate fewer than 1,000 students apiece.

Save for charter schools, a few specialized schools run directly by states, and a handful of federally operated schools for military children and Native Americans, LEAs administer America's public schools. They do so via a "central office" presided over by a superintendent — almost always a career educator — and his staff, which usually functions as a typical public-sector bureaucracy with one unit in charge of transportation, another responsible for personnel, and so on. Except in a dozen or so cities where the superintendent reports to the mayor, or the mayor appoints the governing board, the LEA's administrative team is answerable to an elected board of education or school committee. Typically, school boards consist of seven or nine members; there are some 100,000 such officials nationwide.

The powers of these boards vary from place to place. Part of this variation stems from the fact that some states are more prescriptive than others when it comes to public education; it is also the result of differing approaches to revenue-raising. School boards in some jurisdictions have their own authority to levy taxes and issue bonds, though in many cases school budgets and the local taxes that support them are subject to approval either by other local bodies — such as city councils and county supervisors — or by voters in referenda.

Because today's LEA and school-board structures arose organically from 18th- and 19th-century arrangements — and because these entities are thoroughly familiar and ubiquitous — their utility is rarely questioned. We hardly ever bother to ask how well this system is working, much less whether children, taxpayers, and the cause of American competitiveness might be better served by a different set-up. We just take for granted that this is how public education works.


Such complacency, however, is deeply harmful. Today, this system produces ever more failure; indeed, it is telling that the national education agenda has shifted from running schools to reforming them. In the course of that historic shift, the customary governance structures have emerged as major obstacles. Upon reflection, though, it should hardly be surprising that the governing bodies that produced the current dysfunction are none too eager — or competent — when the time comes to make significant changes.

Examples of how current school-governance structures hinder reform abound. Consider, for instance, the emerging practice of "distance learning." Information and communications technologies are transforming the development and delivery of education; already, dozens of "cyber schools" have opened — some as charters, some operated as franchises of national for-profit firms, some (like the Florida Virtual School) run as integral parts of the state education system. The biggest of these schools operate throughout the states in which they are located — but they could just as easily be operated inter-state or nationwide. After all, political borders do not constrain the delivery of online courses into children's homes, day-care centers, churches, or brick-and-mortar schools.

But which government would write the ground rules for cyber-schooling and hold its vendors to account for their results? Who would set distance learning's academic requirements and assessments? And who would pay for kids to attend them or — in an even more complicated scenario — to take separate courses from several of them, in order to assemble a curriculum tailored to each student? Districts? States? The federal government? Encumbered by the old LEA model, we have no governance mechanism well suited to answering these questions — certainly not local school boards with geographically bounded jurisdictions. Thus the potential for distance learning as an alternative to underperforming schools remains barely tapped, and its financing and rule-making remain absurdly complicated.

Or consider the challenges of teacher preparation. Today, states "certify" teachers, but districts and individual charter schools employ them. Washington, meanwhile, superimposes rules of its own — federal law requires a "highly qualified" teacher in every classroom — while national non-profits like Teach for America recruit and place instructors all over the country. Graduates of our roughly 1,200 teacher-training programs move around, too — but the state in which each program is located sets its own curriculum, meaning that graduates of such programs may not in fact be fully prepared for the teaching jobs they will ultimately hold. Further confusing matters is the fact that most of these programs are "accredited" by a national organization (the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education) — except for those that opt for other accreditors or get by with none at all. And that's before adding the new complexities of "virtual" teacher-preparation programs, such as those operating under the aegis of the University of Southern California or Kaplan University (a for-profit enterprise). Because of our patchwork governance system, there is little uniformity in teacher preparation, dubious quality control, and limited portability of credentials and skills.

Another example is school financing. Several promising reform proposals focus on how schools are funded — such as those hoping to force accountability and improve incentives by tying dollars to students and then allowing the money to go where the students do. But complicating such proposals is the fact that school funding today is hopelessly tangled. Nationwide, state taxes generate about 47 cents of the public-school dollar, local taxes (mostly levied on property) yield about 43 cents, and Uncle Sam kicks in the remaining dime. This distribution varies greatly, however; there are places where the state portion is only about one-third (such as in Florida, Missouri, Nebraska, and South Dakota), while other states (like New Mexico, Vermont, and Hawaii) cover more than 70%. Funding amounts vary even more widely within states: The public schools of Beachwood, Ohio, spend about $20,000 per pupil; 70 miles down the highway, the Strasburg schools spend less than half as much. Despite round after round of "equity lawsuits" (many of them successful), the financing of schools across the country is woefully uneven and confused.

Current governance structures also pose an obstacle to charter schooling. These independently operated public schools are meant to provide alternatives to district schools, and in most places are designed to function as their competitors — giving choices to families, offering an escape hatch to kids trapped in dreadful schools, and creating at least a partial marketplace within what has long been a near-monopoly. Yet more than half of America's charter schools owe their very licenses to operate to the school systems they are supposed to compete with. In many states, would-be charter operators have nowhere else to turn for such licenses. Unsurprisingly, most school-district bureaucracies abhor these upstart rivals; using their power and influence over local and state politicians, they do all they can to contain the growth of charters and, where possible, to eradicate them.

Even the signature education-reform effort of the past two decades — the imposition of rigorous academic standards and accountability for meeting them — has been stymied by our dysfunctional approach to school governance. This structure makes it almost impossible to address the question of what happens to school districts that fail to meet the higher standards, and the further challenge of especially bad schools — "dropout factories" that fail completely in their most basic mission. After all, whose responsibility is it to fix them? The federal government's? That has already been tried with the No Child Left Behind law, which will certainly fail to meet its goal of establishing universal student proficiency by 2014. So are states responsible? The same districts that allowed these schools to fail in the first place, sometimes year after year? What reason is there to believe that these districts would now know how to set things right?

Given these obstacles, it is no accident that all the major education reforms of the past quarter-century have come from outside of the traditional governance structures. Whether one looks at the development of academic standards, the imposition of testing-and-accountability regimes, the spread of school choice in its many variants, or major changes in how teachers are evaluated and compensated, the impetus has almost never originated with state or local boards of education or the people who work for them. Rather, such initiatives have come from governors and business leaders, from mayors and national commissions, from private foundations, and even from the White House.

Putting those bold reforms into practice, however, generally depends on the traditional management structures of public education. And that is where the momentum slows to a creep. These traditional structures are lethargic, bureaucratic, and set in their ways; while people within them may have experience managing schools and complying with rules, they seldom have the capacity to innovate, to make judgments about matters beyond their customary duties, or to stage successful interventions in failing districts and schools. Moreover, many of these people fiercely oppose the policies they are asked to implement. It thus seems that, regardless of the innovative solutions emerging from foundations and think tanks — and no matter how many promising policies are propagated from Washington and state capitals — our current approach to operating schools will remain an all-but-insurmountable roadblock to reform.


Making matters worse is the fact that these traditional structures — theoretically designed to advance the educational interests of children — now exist principally to serve the material interests of adults. Many of these adult interest groups derive enormous benefit from the status quo, and are thus extremely hostile to changes that disrupt it.

Teachers' unions head the list of such organizations, but by no means complete it. School custodians, too, have unions. So do school principals: Even though one might expect these educators to be classified as "management," the principals' contracts in cities like Las Vegas and Baltimore clearly treat them as employees allowed to organize. And behind the unions are queued more rent-seekers: Textbook publishers, tutoring firms, uniform manufacturers, bus companies, food-service and building-security businesses, as well as all manner of data-processing, information technology, and communications outfits have longstanding contracts with public-school systems. Colleges of education, local universities, and civil rights organizations all have stakes in how those systems work, whom they employ, and where they obtain guidance and expertise.

What gives these adult interests traction? Often it is habit, bureaucratic routine, multi-year contracts, and regulatory regimes that limit the options from which LEAs can select, thereby reducing the threat of competition. But with mounting frequency — particularly in the case of teachers' unions — traction comes from political clout. This is achieved by helping union-friendly individuals get elected to school boards, a feat made easier in the many jurisdictions where such elections are non-partisan, often uncontested, and conducted on random dates that don't coincide with other elections and thus draw few voters. In such circumstances, any organized interest group that can mobilize its members and supporters has an excellent chance of prevailing at the polls. Time after time, we have seen examples — in the District of Columbia, Los Angeles, San Diego, Houston, and elsewhere — of unions mustering their members and their allies to ensure the electoral defeat of board members and superintendents who pressed aggressively for reforms that the groups found objectionable.

Much the same thing happens at the state level. Through the use of savvy candidate recruitment, campaign contributions, shoe leather, publicity, and voter mobilization, it is often possible for unions (and, occasionally, other interest groups) to sway key legislative elections. This king-making power then intimidates both incumbent and aspiring lawmakers, steering them toward policies the unions favor. The unions frequently fend off, defeat, or marginalize those who defy their interests. Though most recipients of such help are Democrats, in jurisdictions where Republicans wield long-term influence in the state house, the unions have found ways to befriend — or defang — some of them, too.

Still, state-level politics can be difficult to influence: Those elections generally are contested, partisan, and held on regular election days when voter turnout is strong. Local school boards are thus easier to manipulate. And nowhere is this more true than in urban America.

The nation's urban school districts are located within enormous, bureaucratic, and often highly politicized municipalities. These cities are demographically and economically heterogeneous, containing many different "communities" with conflicting priorities, needs, and dreams — especially when it comes to the education of children. And a large proportion of the nation's children are educated within such systems: 35% of American students are enrolled in the 281 districts with 25,000 or more pupils, and a majority of all students (54%) — including the overwhelming majority of poor and minority students — are accounted for by fewer than 900 districts. This means that about 7,000 individual school-board members are responsible for the education of more than half the country's children.

And what are these urban school-board members like? Generally speaking, our cities have already abandoned the Progressive ideal of having board members interested only in the welfare of children and the community, free of the stain of politics, and able to rise above party and patronage in order to advance the public interest.

In urban America, well-educated, civic-minded, and reasonably prosperous people — of all races — find district-level politics daunting and painful. Many have foresworn the city school system itself, moving to the suburbs, enrolling their kids in private or charter schools, or busying themselves with other kinds of community service — service that is less onerous, and more likely to result in gratitude than in hostility. Particularly in large districts, school-board service has grown demanding — according to 70% of the board members in such districts, it consumes more than 25 hours a month — and poorly compensated. Though a slight majority of large U.S. school systems pay board members a stipend, few stipends exceed $10,000 a year. Serving on such boards can also bring unpleasantness: long, boring evenings listening to public testimony; onerous (and costly) election campaigns; the risk of name-calling, picketing, and racial acrimony; painful responsibilities like closing and "reconstituting" neighborhood schools; and agendas laden with micromanagerial issues but short on decisions about fundamental policy and direction. And even if a school-board member feels that fundamental policy needs to be addressed, he likely knows that to make waves is to risk being booted out of office.

Under these circumstances, who wants to serve on a school board? A look at many big-district boards provides the answer: aspiring politicians, union puppets, individuals with some cause or scheme they yearn to inflict on everyone's kids, and ex-employees of the system with scores to settle. As a result, able, well-meaning, even reform-minded superintendents with commendable plans to improve their schools are often undermined by their own board members. Is it any wonder that the average tenure of urban superintendents is just 3.6 years? And this frequent turnover exacerbates yet another challenge to school reform: the tendency of any bureaucratic system to "wait out" the latest attempt to fix it, mindful that in a year or two that plan's author will move on — and that life will then revert to the old modus operandi, or that yet another reform notion will be tried only to prove similarly short-lived.

Even where there is a decent board and a competent superintendent, the ability to alter the system in any meaningful way is limited. The neediest youngsters will likely require additional help from other agencies that answer to the mayor or city manager, not to the school system. Pre-schools, if there are any, answer to their own organizations or shareholders. A multi-state consortium decides what the academic standards will contain, what assessments will be used, and what makes for an acceptable level of achievement. And if local universities and employers don't like what comes out of the public high schools, they are under no obligation to admit or employ them.

From start to finish, schooling is produced by disparate and far-flung participants, often working against one another; no one figure or organization in a student's community "owns" responsibility for the outcome of his education. In many school systems, particularly the largest, children thus fall through the cracks, and local control fails to establish real accountability. What exactly is "local" about the Los Angeles Unified School District, the Houston Independent School District, or, for that matter, the Fairfax County (Virginia) Public Schools, serving vast territories and enrolling hundreds of thousands of children of every conceivable background in hundreds of schools? Or, at the other end of the demographic spectrum, how "local" is the Park County, Colorado, school system, serving just 678 students scattered over 1,721 square miles — with a mountain range down the middle and school-bus routes that sometimes exceed 50 miles?

Stuck with the corrupted remains of old governance structures, such places are losing the spirit, if not the forms, of "local control" of their public schools. Put another way, our rigid adherence to the "local education agency" approach to school management now undermines the very principles that gave rise to the approach in the first place.


There is clearly a need to restore a true sense of local education, in which families and communities — more knowledgeable about their own desires and their children's needs — make crucial decisions about how to educate children, rather than leaving those choices to distant, scattered, self-concerned bureaucrats and adult interest groups. The good news, however, is that, while all of this dysfunction has depleted the traditional version of "local control" in American public education, new forms of local control have started to take root.

The most conspicuous of these efforts involve turning over management of the school system to someone else. In several major cities — most prominently New York, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, and the District of Columbia — the mayor is now in charge; the superintendent (or chancellor) reports directly to him. In Newark, Philadelphia, Detroit, and a handful of other disastrous (or bankrupt) districts, the state has simply seized control.

Less visible, but far more widespread, is the quiet re-invention of local control — alternatives that move away from the traditional LEA model while advancing the aims of decentralization and increased parental influence and choice. Typically, this re-invention takes three forms.

The first is the right in most states of parents, educators, and organizations to form and run their own charter schools. This is a limited tool, to be sure, subject to myriad requirements and political risks (including, in too many places, the power of the existing school bureaucracy to veto a charter plan). But these charter schools — 5,000 of them and counting — are essentially self-governing, not unlike private schools. The potential for charters is enormous, and the charter laws of many states are flexible enough to be used for diverse ends. Indeed, in the aforementioned Park County, Colorado, district, two tiny towns took the charter route to effectively "secede" from the distant central office and reclaim control over their own schools.

Second, as other forms of schooling arise and various choice programs confer more options on more parents in more places, the district monopoly is starting to fracture. Charter schools are just the beginning: There are also Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) schools, magnet schools, "governor's schools," virtual schools, regional vocational schools, "tech-prep" and "early-college" programs, not to mention access to schools in other neighborhoods, in the next district, and even, in places with voucher programs, to private schools at public expense. And all of this choice is available without making the decision to move home and hearth in order to reside near a better "neighborhood" school. When one adds this "real-estate choice" to all of these other choice options, it can accurately be said that slightly more than half of all American students today attend schools that they or their parents selected.

Third, outside of the schools themselves, technology is combining with prosperity — and in some cases with religious faith or strongly held preferences about instructional methods — to lead parents to pursue educational alternatives for their kids. Full-time "home schooling" is the most extreme version, and close to 3% of all American children are now educated in this manner. In some places, students — particularly high schoolers — may be able to split their education, spending part of their time in a traditional brick-and-mortar school and the rest being taught at home or in a "parent collaborative" that functions much like the one-room school houses of yore. More widespread and accessible still is the supplementation of children's regular schooling with software and high-quality online programs, after-school programs, summer school, and education-focused camps, as well as plain old books and their electronic clones. These developments are not a formal change of school governance — but they do allow "local control" of education to be brought right into parents' homes.

It is in this direction that the future of American education should point. The aim should not be to abolish local control or to devise more clumsy "work-arounds," but rather to re-invent "local control" altogether. Empowering families, volunteer groups, education organizations, and even neighborhoods to create and run their schools is what "local control" should mean — a meaning not so very different from the one it had a century ago, when the United States had a smaller and less mobile population, much of it spread across rural areas and small towns, and when we had about 130,000 school systems rather than nearly 14,000.

Under this re-definition of "local control," what ought day-to-day education look like? Self-governing, charter-style schools should become the norm, not the exception. These schools of choice could vary dramatically in size, staffing, calendar, curricular and pedagogical focus, and in their uses of technology. Some would be operated by regional and national firms; others would be "virtual." Many would likely band together in order to share services and pursue greater efficiency. Some might join integrated "feeder school" networks, which allow a child to remain part of a coherent institutional sequence from kindergarten (or earlier) through 12th grade (or later). Others would be local franchises of brand-name charter schools — such as Core Knowledge or the Knowledge Is Power Program.

For this arrangement to work, however, the heavy burden of reform would have to fall on the states. For instance, in order for such a system to maintain a semblance of order and equality, states would need to both increase and shrink their roles in school governance and finance. The state or its reliable agents would "authorize" every school and hold it accountable — for academic results, for complying with essential rules, for properly handling public dollars, and so forth. Those state authorizers would, in effect, license schools to operate, determine whether they are functioning properly, and gauge when and how to intervene in cases of malfunction. The authorizer would also watch over the governance of "its" schools and perhaps sign off on the selection of their principals. Authorizers could take many forms, as they do under current charter laws. Ultimately, the state and its authorizers would need to ensure the existence of enough approved schools to accommodate all children, regardless of the students' educational circumstances. This might also involve operating (or outsourcing) a placement service to help match students and families with public schools that are accessible and best suited to meeting children's needs.

In a related function, states would also need to set suitable academic standards, assess student and school performance, and report the results — much as they do today. Those results would be presented as data capable of being sliced and compared in hundreds of ways, enabling improved education policy and practice. States could make this responsibility simpler and the results more readily comparable by signing up for newly minted (and generally sound) "common" standards as well as for shared assessments, which are still in development. Crucially, however, as states took on greater responsibility for setting the broad outlines of education policy, they would have to back off from their customary micromanagement and regulation of the K-12 space — instead entrusting the responsibility for personnel, curriculum, budget, and several other functions to individual schools, where it belongs.

An added burden for the states — but an essential one, if this new structure is to work properly — would be shouldering almost total responsibility for raising and disbursing the public dollars that flow to schools. (And in this case, "states" must mean the governor and legislature — not a quasi-independent body without direct accountability to parents, voters, and taxpayers.) The optimal way to channel those public dollars is through "weighted student funding," whereby the amount of money devoted to a child's education varies with his needs and educational circumstances and accompanies that child to the school of his choice. States would use whatever revenue sources they favored — taxes, lotteries, riverboat gambling — to raise these funds, but the "local share" as we know it would vanish. Individual schools might want to "top up" their state funding with locally raised money; whether they would be allowed to do so is a decision each state should make for itself.

In this new system, what would happen to the LEA? Its fate would likely come to resemble that of its counterparts in England, known there as "local education authorities." Over the past quarter-century, these governing bodies have been marginalized; the decisions, controls, and authorities that they once wielded have moved both up (to London) and down (to individual schools and their "governors"). The LEAs still exist — but they don't have much to do.

On this side of the ocean, it would of course be cleaner to erase LEAs altogether. If states wanted to, most could accomplish this through legislation; in only a few, such as Colorado, are the LEAs themselves enshrined in the state constitutions. But such all-out elimination doesn't seem likely and may not be necessary: Some LEAs would naturally wither away. Some — perhaps the large and reasonably well-functioning agencies like the one in Montgomery County, Maryland — might seek to play a version of the state role as outlined above. (Indeed, having existing local districts take on the aforementioned state functions could be a useful "trial run" before full statewide re-invention.) Other enterprising districts might become vendors of goods and services in their locales: Schools that wanted to cluster together for a range of purposes — from sports leagues to shared facilities, building maintenance, pupil transportation, information technology, group purchasing, business management, special education, advanced calculus, or fifth-year Japanese — might find the LEA to be the most convenient and efficient provider or consolidator. The key, however, is that the schools would choose to work with the LEA — a far cry from having the LEA run the schools.


Naturally, the picture sketched above may seem radical, and is of course incomplete. Filling it in will require altering the federal government's role in education, too. And getting even partway to this goal may require some states to amend their constitutions — an inevitably contentious proposition, sure to be resisted by the same adult interests that so fiercely obstruct reform today.

But the challenges that this course poses are no excuse not to embark upon it. The first step toward reform is to openly acknowledge that our inherited arrangements for governing education are archaic and dysfunctional — and that to continue to take them for granted is to consign almost all of today's other education reforms to stagnation and failure.

The next step is to seriously consider who should be in charge of America's system of education. After decades of leaving its management to self-serving contractors, bureaucracies, and unions, the results are bitterly disappointing. The new approach outlined above, however, would dramatically shift this responsibility, placing it with governors and legislatures, individual schools and their own governing bodies, and, ultimately, parents and taxpayers.

And it is with taxpayers and parents that the responsibility for educating our children should ultimately lie. The original principle behind our local governance system was that the people who had the most invested in their schools and the most to gain from them — as well as the best, most direct knowledge of whom those schools needed to serve and what services they needed to provide — should govern them. Over the past century and a half, we have drifted far away from that original aim — to the detriment of America's students. For their benefit, and for the nation's, we must now endeavor to make education local again.

Chester E. Finn, Jr., is president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and a senior fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution. This essay was made possible in part by generous support from the Hertog/Simon Fund for Policy Analysis.


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