Education Week: How is Power Distributed in American Public K-12 Education?

like everything in our education system, the division of power is historically contingent, ad hoc, and pretty weird

This is the first post in (the first annual?) Education Week at freddiedeboer.substack.com. I acknowledge that most any week could be called an education week on this blog.

To understand American education you must understand where the power lies. Is it parents? Is it local school boards? How responsive are said school boards to said parents? How powerful is the federal Department of Education, exactly? The national political parties? How about the think tanks and academic Education departments in universities? Each plays a role in shaping the future of American schooling. But it can be remarkably difficult to pull the strings to get a better idea of why one era of policy follows another – and despite all of these influences, why it frequently feels like no one is driving the car.

The principle of local control has long been considered sacrosanct in American education, although it is worth noting that it arose less as an expression of principle at all and more due to the iterative and piecemeal adoption of free, publicly-funded and government controlled schools in the United States. As the ideal of public schools congealed in the late 19th and early 20th century, our country was even less federalized than it is now. An effort to create a standardized national system of public schools would surely have failed the political test, as well as strained the infrastructure of government. Instead, in bits and pieces municipalities and states began funding free schools, with standout cities like Boston creating models for the rest of the country to follow. (These early public schools typically competed alongside for-pay alternatives, but in many places these were seen as low-quality and frequently as scams, as discussed in historian Cristina Viviana Groeger’s recent The Education Trap.) Because cities were largely paying for these schools themselves, and because of the lack of anything resembling true national standards – it is always worth remembering that a dedicated cabinet-level Department of Education has existed only since 1980 – local control was inevitable. Even with dramatically greater state, federal, and private party dollars now flowing into public schools, the biggest chunk of funding comes from local taxes, deepening local control. No taxation without representation, as they say.

Over the course of the 20th century the loose municipal and state standards came under greater and greater national control, though they remain stubbornly idiosyncratic in ways both good and bad. Federal influence has, like seemingly all things involved in public schooling, come piecemeal. Brown v. Board of Education did not merely (attempt to) desegregate schools; it sparked a new national focus on the inequalities and lack of educational standards in American schooling. Part of the shock to conservative sensibilities that stemmed from seeing the National Guard escorting Black children to school was a matter of the federal government asserting itself in local schools at all. The Cold War would contribute its fair share to the development of education, as well. The widespread fear that America was falling behind the USSR prompted much gnashing of teeth in national politics, prompted an unprecedented amount of federal resources to flow to public universities, and in my opinion was the true origin of the mania for quantitative metrics (testing) that predominates in the conversation today. (Leonard Cassuto has persuasively argued that the sudden glut of Cold War cash in the American university system created some of the problems with graduate education and the academic job market we see today.)

Such worries about the national security and national greatness consequences of education was manifested to greatest effect by the Reagan-administration scaremongering of A Nation at Risk, which to my mind did more to cement the “the sky is falling!” tone of contemporary education discourse than anything else. (Today I suspect the report would have been farmed out to a sympathetic think tank for a variety of political reasons, but that is a discussion for another time.) A Sandia Labs report rather effectively rebutted A Nation at Risk, but the political points had already been scored and the damage was done. Alarmist rhetoric had become the norm in discussions about American education and proved remarkably durable.

In the 1990s increasing concern about badly failing schools in Black and low-income neighborhoods sparked new federal spending that came with strings attached. Although federal dollars today amount to only ~10% of all public school funding, this money is disproportionately concentrated in our poorest districts, which in turn drive policy to a remarkable degree. Concerns that the United States is an educational basket case, while very debatable – the median American student does OK and our top 10% or 5% are among the very best in the world – drove the adoption of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. All of the conventional wisdom of the time, including the unproven but dogged belief that national educational outcomes could be substantially changed by policy, were represented in these laws. NCLB furthered the test mania that states were already instituting, again based on dubious evidence. (George W. Bush’s “Texas miracle” was considered a primary model, but inconveniently that miracle was the result of selection bias, as almost all powerful educational effects are eventually revealed to be.) And it crystalized the “teachers are the problem” school of thought into policy. Suddenly there was federal control of teacher behavior in a way there never was before. Still, the law took pains to delegate specific standards and enforcement mechanisms to the states, resulting in an even more bizarre system of overlapping jurisdictions and jury-rigged systems. NCLB was, notoriously, spiked after years of failure to meet its absurd standards and a slowly building resistance to the ever-expanding testing regime, though its replacement is not much better.

Currently the federal government exercises influence in all manner of ways, but it’s still remarkably constrained in terms of any ability to say to specific schools “you need to do this.” There seems to be little appetite for any more grand new educational policy regimes at the federal level at least for now; again, local control is a potential landmine for anyone who has to go home and beg for votes, and the bipartisan, profound failure of No Child Left Behind seems to have spooked many members of Congress. The Department of Education itself is constrained by a smaller budget than you’d think and by the all-seeing eye of the party that is not in power, which acts as a natural check on the Department’s ambitions.

Meanwhile the education departments at universities perform research that influences the policy discussion, but this influence is diffuse and slow-gathering and also constrained by the profound difficulties in generating consistent and meaningful results. There are also a fair number of universities that run model schools or otherwise bring public schools into their orbit for developmental pedagogy and to assist local at-risk communities, but the number of such arrangements are tiny compared to the size of the entire US system.

There is another quiet but massive influence that should be discussed, one that has dramatically flexed its muscles in recent years: the charitable foundations. The foundations (and sometimes associated think tanks) have real power. I would love to say “X dollars of private foundation money flow into educational policy, politics, and research each year,” but we simply don’t know those numbers; the private nature of these entities prevents the kind of sunlight that comes with public spending. They can organize themselves however they wish and have little incentive to make their decision making processes or actions plain even to donors, if they accept donations at all, which some don’t. (Nonprofit status does bring with it certain reporting and fiduciary requirements, but these are often seen as toothless and rarely subject to rigorous enforcement.) Again, it is essentially impossible to quantify this, but in more and more contexts private foundation money is flowing into programs in and around public schools and increasingly shape the experience of students.

Disturbingly, if you care about a robust democracy with checks and balances established through ideological competition, these organizations are overwhelming drawn from the same political backgrounds: they tend to be billionaire-funded, espouse the use of economic and business principles in schooling, and have a corporate mentality that prefers loose regulation and centralized control. They are also the loudest to shout “no excuses!,” which in education is quite a feat; everybody is shouting “no excuses.” This rejection of the possibility of failure stems, I think, from the billionaires sitting on top; the funders of these foundations are people who are used to getting results. There are legacy organizations like the Ford Foundation, which wields huge influence in education policy, and newer ones that throw around Silicon Valley cash, such as the secretive Hastings Fund, endowed by Netflix billionaire and charter school diehard Reed Hastings. (Unless I’m mistaken, the Hastings Fund does not even have a public-facing website.) Essentially all of these organizations are what we would call neoliberal. There are many conservative organizations that influence education, but they are a smaller portion of the overall foundation world than you’d think, and they tend to focus on advocacy for homeschooling, private school vouchers, and other alternatives to direct engagement on pedagogy or policy for public schools.

It’s difficult to overstate how influential these organizations have become in the 21st century. With academia in a seemingly-permanent tenure-track jobs crisis, the research expectations on career academics grow harder and harder to satisfy. To publish influential work one most have access to a meaningful sample size of students, and this requires cash. To get cash you have to be in the good graces of the thinktanks and foundations. Part of the reason there’s such remarkable pro-charter unanimity in certain ed policy circles (when there is anything but in the larger political arena) lies in this dynamic: the thinktanks and foundations are overwhelmingly pro-charter, and if you want to secure the funding that is the lifeblood of an academic researcher’s career you can’t be seen to oppose charters too intently. (Why are the thinktanks and foundations so pro-charter, in general? Because they are funded by people who want quick results and magic bullets and charter schools are frequently, if dubiously, represented as such.) During the early research for my book I was told point-blank by a tenured and decorated professor that she was nonetheless afraid of offending the wrong donors and carefully monitored what she said publicly about charters.

Beyond the research influence, there is simply the willingness to pay for policy. For example, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation brought us the Common Core.

When I say that the Gates Foundation passed Common Core, people usually think that I’m speaking metaphorically or exaggerating for effect. But in very literal terms this is what happened. This 2014 Washington Post article explains how this all came to be, and if anything it understates the case. As I have researched the details of this immensely consequential moment in educational policy, I have been struck by how little anyone debated the Common Core in states where it was passed. In many of them I cannot find a single opinion piece or editorial on the subject in the major local newspaper leading up to the legislation. In Obama’s polarized America, there was no subject that could not prompt a bitter partisan struggle, yet this culturally and politically-loaded topic was mostly ignored. Of course, “Obama’s America” explains this dynamic, in part: Common Core attracted little attention because it was not your usual Democratic party operatives pressing for the policy but rather seemingly apolitical technocrats. This is, indeed, one of the great dangers of technocratic rule, rendering deeply political topics seemingly apolitical. One way or another, the Common Core became law in over 40 states in short order and in doing so standardized actual American public school pedagogical goals more than any other act in the country’s history. (Whether it actually standardized the learning experience is another question.) A deep-pocketed and unaccountable private organization just decided “this is happening” and it happened.

Common Core is increasingly seen as a failure by professionals in the educational policy space, though in my experience they are not agreed about exactly how it has failed. Certainly the failure of Procrustean standards to actually improve student achievement should surprise no one, when we should have examples like the fiasco of universalizing algebra fresh in our minds. Whatever the truth, Common Core to me exemplifies the sense that education in America has both too many hands at the wheel and not enough direction at the same time.

Despite all of these outside influences, state and local governments retain great control over public schools. States direct funding derived from state income and other taxes, concentrating resources where they are seen as most needed. (That is, in poorer and Blacker schools. Contrary to liberal conventional wisdom, such schools receive significantly more per-pupil funding than their whiter, richer counterparts, though of course some dispute this. We’ve been throwing money at our performance gaps for 40 or more years so this should not be surprising.) They also develop curricular standards and the means through which they will be assessed, making them the nexus for much of our ed debates – it is states that decide whether to teach creationism, or sex education, or to adopt “equitable” mathematics. In many states they set collective bargaining standards where collective bargaining is legal. (This map from the National Council on Teacher Quality is a great resource.) All manner of other ancillary policies are controlled by the states as well.

Despite the steadily growing imposition of standardization, today the most direct and immediate control still comes at the local level. In terms of the actual day-to-day experience of living and learning at school for real-world students, local districts remain the most important factor. Teacher hiring and firing decisions happen at the local level, as does appointment or hiring of superintendents and principals; all of those decisions arguably exert more influence than any other factor. The physical facilities of schools are typically dictated by municipalities, subject to state standards, and the provision of clubs, sports, after school programs, and similar are often local decisions as well. In most places transportation to and from school, a topic of great practical importance, is arranged by the municipal authorities, and the purchasing of books and other educational materials are usually a local affair as well. Day to day operation of American education remains local.

Many would argue – in fact, I would argue – that this is appropriate. It’s true that there are tradeoffs; we have seen the downside of a lack of national control with the school reopening debate, which seems destined to result in vastly different safety standards based on what should be a standard set of epidemiological facts. But that same universality, if implemented in American education generally, would render the whole edifice unapproachable and remote. Any given parent should feel empowered to influence their child’s school, and the easiest way to make such empowerment accessible to average parents is by investing power in local decision making. PTAs are usually pretty toothless but in some places they exert a surprising amount of control. Unlike a mammoth bureaucratic entity like the Department of Education, you can actually approach a superintendent and have a conversation with them, and this sense of audience and access is essential. We’ve seen the impact on families and their trust in schools when local control is wrested away. Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan’s disastrous attempt to trade billions for unprecedented private control of a public school district in Newark resulted in profound antipathy among parents and very little in the way of durable educational progress, as brilliantly detailed in Dale Russakoff’s The Prize. Kids are, of course, sacred to their parents, and thus a school is a kind of temple. It seems sensible to me that most would prefer to worship at one ruled over by an independent and accessible preacher than by a distant and arcane Catholic Church.

A broader question is whether the best system is a standard American setup featuring teachers that work under principals that (usually) report to superintendents that (often) are directed by local school boards that are (generally) elected in open municipal elections. The actual election and functioning of local school boards across states are incredibly Byzantine and I wouldn’t claim to know how school board (and sometimes superintendent) selection functions in most places, let alone attempt to summarize it for you. (This resource may help you.) But a common system is for school board seats to be distributed through regular municipal elections. The vast majority of those who run in them across the country are not career politicians but local community members, usually of some local renown in business or church etc. These candidates serve on a board for a set term, often two or four years, with boards usually electing chairpersons internally. In many municipalities the board hires a superintendent who actually has day-to-day authority in running the schools, although there are many exceptions, and this superintendent has ultimate decision making authority over most personnel decisions such as teacher hiring.

So this system is local and locally responsive, right? What’s the problem? Well, for one thing these elections are just pitifully neglected by the very local communities that are supposed to be wielding their authority. Turnout rates for these elections are pathetic and a vast number of candidates run unopposed. In places without term limits it’s not unheard of for members of the school board to sit for a decade or longer without a single electoral challenge, meaning that the member has no political incentive to be responsive to the constituency. School board races can be rife with controversy, in part because the candidates rarely have campaign staffs holding them back and, in small districts, in part because they are too low-stakes to attract much media attention. And the resulting boards are themselves frequently vastly unrepresentative of the student bodies, parents, and cities they are meant to serve. They are also potentially subject to interest group capture, such as when a Hasidic group effectively dominated a local school system and shunted resources into private religious schools. The whole thing seems deeply imperfect.

Are there alternatives? In some systems the school boards are appointed rather than elected, in much the same way that an incoming mayoral administration would appoint any other high-level city positions. This can avoid some of the embarrassments and depredations of the election process, and in most places there are established channels for subjecting a mayor to active critical review, making reform more straightforward. But mayoral administrations are subject to the same political pressures – and the same potential for corruption and neglect – as any other elected entities. There are also some school districts that use a ward-style system, which assigns a school board member to a particular geographical location within a municipality which then elects their own representative. This can help avoid a lack of representation for given constituencies, although ultimately these seats will always be filled with elites.

A more radical proposal might include assigning school board seats to people who opt-in to a lottery which chooses the board. Provisions could be made to ensure that the composition of the lottery is reasonably representative of the appropriate municipality. These board members could be strictly term limited to a single term of two or four years. It might seem dramatic to assign seats of such importance randomly, but then again this is precisely what we do for juries, which is rightly seen as a sacred and important duty. Perhaps there could be an initial “run-in” election in which a pool of candidates earn enough votes to be placed in the lottery pool to help sift out the riff raff. Another change could be requiring that any school board member have at least one child enrolled in one of the public schools that the school board presides over. Of course, part of the common argument for charter schools is that they largely eliminate the layers of bureaucracy above them and empower schools to make their own decisions, so some might simply argue for the abolition of school boards and more free hands for principals. One way or another, a dramatic shake up of school board election processes might be necessary to inject meaningful energy into the process and the boards, and if implemented carefully could help alleviate representation concerns.

Ultimately, the division of power between various entities in the American education landscape is like so much else in this arena: dictated by quirks of history, captured by inertia and path dependence, and subject to the whims of a vast number of stakeholders who hold veto points. Large-scale and significant reform of the system is probably impossible. Congress could decide to assert far more federal control with national legislation, subject to a president’s veto, but given that local control of schools is such a sacred cow for the kind of people who elect our legislators that seems distinctly unlikely. A better question might be, is such reform really needed? I’m not sure that it is; I am on record as saying that these kinds of administrative changes will have little practical effects on the quantitative educational metrics we are now so obsessed with. Besides, I like local control in principle. Parents have a certain inherent skin in the game that makes me more sympathetic to the notion of local control of education than I would be with local control of, say, environmental policy. I’m also happy about local control for entirely opportunistic reasons: had our system been strongly federalized, the largely bipartisan zeal for the “reform” movement from 2000ish to 2015ish would have certainly resulted in mass conversion to charter systems and even more intensive privatization of elements of our public schooling. Local control helped make such mass adoption of misguided ideas impossible.

But it’s also not hard to conclude that the very shaggy dog we have in the division of power in this world makes positive change much harder. If I did think that we could achieve significant pedagogical improvements through top-down policy, we couldn’t widely implement such a policy with any consistency or standardization. It’s all a bit of a mess. I do believe that there can be helpful reform, particularly in tearing down some of the practical hurdles to real community control in big districts, where machine politics often reign. But in general American education will go on doing what it always does: shamble on, leaderless, doing alright, but not great.