Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Conflicts of Interest in Governance

Elected school boards are a cherished community tradition in public education and they provide voice to many big and small community interests. But sometimes these political functions undermine their ability to improve opportunities for students.

Both operating and overseeing schools can lead boards to protect the schools they run even when they are not working for children. The need to satisfy diverse adult constituencies can lead boards to placate organized groups by imposing harmful constraints on schools.

These conflicts are baked into public education governance. They are most evident at the local level, where elected school board politics lead to micromanagement. But they are also evident in state legislatures, Congress, state education agencies, and the USDOE.

Some school boards try to manage these conflicts with training and codes of conduct, which can persuade individuals to discipline themselves and resist political pressures to intervene in all but the smallest affairs. But this works only until a single-issue candidate gets elected or one board member gives in to the obvious temptations and starts making deals with unions, central office factions, or other interest groups.

The real solution needs to be structural. Public governance entities need to have only one job, making sure every child in a jurisdiction has a school that works for him or her. To eliminate lethal conflicts of interest, public governance entities must not operate schools directly. Or as Osborne and Gaebler said it, they must steer not row.

Every serious governance reform proposal separates steering from rowing in some way, but some of them create new conflicts of interest.

Turning over governance to charter management organizations (CMOs) would simply re-locate the conflict of interest from an elected public entity (the school board) to an unelected private one. CMOs would have the same incentives to defend their weaker schools as school districts now have. CMOs have important roles to play in public education, but they need to be subject to, not put in place of, public oversight.

Turning over governance to charter authorizers focuses the governance task on quality and creates (in theory) the incentive to close bad schools. Charter authorizers have a strong interest in sponsoring a slate of strong schools but they have never been obligated to educate a particular group of children. Children their schools don’t serve can go elsewhere. If charter authorizers were to be charged with educating all the children in a geographic area, their old and new roles would be in conflict.

The portfolio strategy tries to help school districts work themselves out of conflict of interest, by making all existing schools autonomous, eliminating central office control functions, encouraging independent charter providers, and using common performance standards to determine which schools will continue operating and which will be closed or re-assigned to other operators.

Critics are right to say that portfolio districts remain in conflict of interest until all their schools are fully autonomous and held accountable only for performance. The portfolio strategy is a practical way to transition from a system where virtually all schools are run by districts to one where none are. But it is not an end state. Districts that get stuck halfway into portfolio implementation, with a big central office and a lot of highly regulated schools, are still in conflict of interest.

The end state, at least for urban areas with complex educational needs, must be governing boards that:

  • Put students first, by ensuring that every family has choices among good schools and protecting children from discrimination in admissions and expulsion;
  • Fully separate steering from rowing;
  • Maintain a level playing field so incumbent schools don’t have built-in advantages that prevent the emergence and success of new and innovative schools;
  • Have no incentive to preserve low-performing schools;
  • Care about the quality of the teacher labor force but is not obligated to preserve jobs;
  • Listen to parents and interest groups but will not mollify adults by creating regulations that hamstring schools, and will not continue running a school that is bad for children even if adults like it.

These are demanding requirements, and no current governance proposal meets them all. CRPE Research Analyst Ashley Jochim and I are finishing a book (to be published next year by the University of Chicago Press) that will propose a new form of governance that is constitutionally limited. Local boards could authorize schools and hold them accountable, but not operate schools or employ teachers. Local boards would be limited by state laws defining their powers; they would also be held in check by state agencies that can take over persistently low-performing schools or disband and reorganize renegade local boards.

Our proposal would profoundly change the roles of local boards, state education agencies, and the federal government. It would create a statutory basis on which courts could preserve, rather than undercut, governance focused on supporting effective schools.

It takes a whole book to show how this all works, but we will sketch the main ideas in a series of blog posts over the next few months.

Wed, 12/01/2021

As health and safety concerns recede, districts are under pressure to provide fewer days and hours of student-teacher contact than before the pandemic.

Mon, 11/15/2021

Use the Canopy project interactive data portal to search for innovative schools by region, level, focus, and more.

Thu, 10/28/2021

Three new policy memos provide recommendations to start a discussion about how state leaders can ensure these shifts lead to better teaching, learning, engagement, and well-being for students.