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Governance and Its Limits
Ashley Jochim explains how the formal tools of public education governance can be limited because of institutional inertia and a weak leadership pipeline in this blog originally published in Fordham's Flypaper.
The push to raise standards and boost outcomes for students has placed states at the center of efforts to improve public education. But as many have observed, few are well positioned to deliver on these aims.
The challenges of advancing reform from the statehouse have led many education reformers to turn to governance. Education governance both determines which institutions have the authority to make education decisions and also shapes how those decisions are made.
In a new report from the Fordham Institute, Dara Zeehandelaar and David Griffith tackle the thorny challenge of depicting the range of governance arrangements that structure state education policy. The authors create a taxonomy classifying the ways that states differ on three dimensions: concentration of decision-making authority at the state versus the local level; distribution of authority among many institutions versus consolidation of authority in only a few; and the degree to which the public can participate in making particular decisions. They combine these dimensions into eight governance types.
The authors reserve judgment on how governance shapes the ability of states to meet their constitutional obligations to students. But they provide some illustrative examples of how governance structures can limit the actions available to states and localities. States with more consolidated authority, as well as those that are insulated from democratic politics, can act more aggressively to implement reforms than can states required to share powers and seek approval from diverse groups.
These are important findings that deserve serious consideration from those concerned with how to make states more effective in their roles. Yet as an observer of state education policy, I’m struck by how limited the formal tools of governance can be when confronted with institutional inertia and a weak leadership pipeline. This is the case in many states, including those where power is supposedly consolidated.
Over the last thirty years, federal and state policymakers have layered on new responsibilities for the states with little consideration of whether they are in any position to wield the authority they already have. While rules and statutory authority enable policymakers to take decisive action, they do not guarantee that they’ll have the requisite commitment or capacity to actually do so. As Zeehandelaar and Griffith note, “Sometimes tradition, customs, convenience, and individual personalities have more impact on governance in a state that do formal structures and laws.” This is why reforms to education governance must be enacted with a focus on the capacity of government agencies to carry out the duties they’ve been charged with.
The challenge is that efforts to build capacity in states can only be undertaken with greater clarity about the role of the state in education governance. States grappling with the difficult work of improving outcomes for students must be equipped to wield a very different set of tools than those primarily responsible for administering federal programs. As Paul Hill and I argue in our book A Democratic Constitution for Public Education, education governance could be made more effective by defining and limiting the role of state and local actors. Doing so will focus their action, create accountability for results, and enable the kind of capacity building that will enable them to be successful in their respective responsibilities.
Governance reform in education has (and will likely continue to have) mixed results so long as states lack a clear framework to direct the work of authorities on improving outcomes for students. Addressing these issues will become all the more pressing as the federal government increasingly looks to states to fill the void it leaves behind as ESEA reauthorization moves forward.
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