Change The Rules

April 2003

This article was originally published in the Democratic Leadership Council's Blueprint Magazine, April 15, 2003.

Every public school principal has two big books: one of state laws and regulations, and the other of old and current school district directives. California's book is best moved by wheelbarrow, and many district policy binders expand by hundreds of pages each year. Audiences for reformist speakers can easily be convinced that these documents contribute little to effective teaching and learning.

The politics of public spending creates these tomes. Rules and regulations guard against charges of favoritism or loose management of funds. But they also burden schools, imposing time-consuming tasks and robbing educators of flexibility.

Over-regulation is tragic because it is unnecessary. The key to ending it is to change the powers and missions of local school boards. In big cities, boards now meet frequently, often more than once each week. They spend the bulk of their time on budgetary and personnel issues and on resolving complaints, leaving little time for discussion of school performance.

The key to reform is to take away the school board powers that lead to the greatest disruption—the power to hire and assign staff and reallocate funds among schools—and to strengthen their power to ensure that there is a school for every child. This could be accomplished by three changes in state law.

Locate decisionmaking as near the child as possible. Every school faces unique challenges, and good schools adapt to the needs of the children they serve. In big cities, where every school serves a different mix of language and income groups, schools can't all be the same. Important decisions must be made at the school level. In most school districts, however, decisions about hiring, teacher assignments, and spending are made centrally, far from the site of problem-solving.

In education as in politics, the power of the purse trumps all other considerations. Money needs to go directly to schools, so they can pay for the teachers, equipment, and other services they need. This can be done if states allocate dollars for each student, and give schools a check for every student who enrolls.

Limit the powers of school boards. Boards focus on patronage and interest brokering because they hire everyone who works in a school and authorize all purchases. States could remove these powers by making schools, not boards, the agencies that hire teachers and decide how money will be allocated among competing budget demands: salaries, class size, technology, and other services to children. This change would give the school board only one job: overseeing its portfolio of schools, pruning out the ones that consistently under-perform, and nurturing new ones to take their place.

Make everything—including the existence of individual schools and the continuation of the school board itself—contingent on performance. Even if they can make their own key decisions, not all schools will work. School boards need to identify schools that do not teach effectively, and create new schools for children whose schools fail them. As suggested by the Democratic Leadership Council's charter district proposal, school boards would not operate schools, but charter them. Schools would receive public funds as long as their children were learning, but the charters held by failing schools could be reassigned to new groups.

School boards' existence should also depend on performance. States should not tolerate school boards that allow certain schools to under-educate generations of children. At present, states have few options: They can threaten or exhort, but school boards can continue to neglect certain schools, especially the ones in poor neighborhoods where parents lack political clout.

States could regain the leverage they need by chartering not just schools, but school districts. Like charter schools, school boards could have performance contracts with the state, renewable every five years. In the case of a negligent school board, the state could hold new elections, or allow neighboring districts to compete for control of a failed school board's schools. States could also place school boards under the pressure of competition by authorizing two or more school boards to serve an area now served by one, or by creating multiple boards able to operate anywhere in a broad area, such as a large metropolitan county.

Taken together, these changes would create a public education system in which families and teachers have options, schools have a good balance of accountability and freedom of action, and school boards have fewer temptations but enough powers to provide good schools. Under this proposal, everything would depend on school performance. Schools boards could focus on what matters, and would have neither incentive nor opportunity to burden schools or meddle in personnel or purchasing.

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