There are two types of public school governance: centralized and decentralized. A centralized school administration is one that is managed by the government, while a decentralized administration has the public managing all aspects of its governance. A centralized administration is generally seen as negative by educators because the power to make change is not in the hands of the people most affected by that change. The public only gets to control change in a decentralized school administration. The United States has seen many variances of both systems since the early 1900s and there is still a debate as to which method of governance is the most effective, as determined by student performance.
Keywords A Nation at Risk; Ancillary Structures; Centralized Administration; The Civil Rights Act of 1964; Decentralized Administration; Governance; Localized Administration; The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); The National Defense Education Act of 1958 (NDEA)
Successful administration of a public school requires many things. While expert supervision, credentialed teachers, strong financial standing, and parental support are essential to running an effective school system, a dependable method of governance is even more essential. Whereas a centralized administration may be the most successful for one district, a decentralized or localized administration may be what is most productive for another. For others still a trial of one as reform for another may be what is needed. In any event, it is important to understand who takes on what responsibility within a school district based on his or her position within that district. It is also important to understand the history of education governance before trying to establish a standard of administration.
In the greater scheme of school governance, there are two basic philosophies. The first is known as a decentralized school administration. In this case, the public will authorize, fund, and operate the schools within the district (not including parochial schools—which require tuition—or charter or magnet schools, which are independently owned). This system is generally managed by a board of educators elected by the public. State and local funds support the district, and a district manager, generally a superintendent oversees the day-to-day operations of the district. The second philosophy is one that establishes public authorization, public funding, but independently operated schools; charter schools and magnet schools fall into this category of centralized administrative schools. The difference here is not the size of the supervising body (a board of education versus an established owner or corporation); it is the power behind that body: the public versus the government. A district administration is considered centralized when the government manages it. Decentralization occurs when the public takes control over a district's supervision.
The Decentralized School District
Figure 1 shows one possibility of how a decentralized school district administration can be established depending on its size and budget. A centralized district will not have a board of education; if it does, the board does not have the decision making power of either the superintendent or a supervisor to which the superintendent and board report.
Figure 1: Organizational Chart of a Decentralized School Administration
In a decentralized administration, the school board (with each member being elected by the community) establishes policies, makes personnel decisions, and supervises all members of the district, including the superintendent. The superintendent, in turn, manages each separate school, with the schools' principals reporting directly to the superintendent; he or she then reports to the board. A centralized district, on the other hand, has a supervising entity—sometimes a business owner, a corporation, or some form of government—in the role of the board of education. The superintendent (if there is one) oversees each school and reports directly to the entity in charge. Whereas the public elects a board of education and votes on policy creation in the decentralized structure, the public has little say in the administration on a centralized structure. With a great deal of effort and commitment, a district may choose to change the way its administration is run, although moving from a decentralized administration to that of a centralized form of governance is generally easier than the public gaining control over a government-run system.
History of Education Governance
Historically, community members have pushed for governance at the local level, the assumption being that such localized management would mean that the public has a voice in the way its schools are run. At the beginning of the twentieth century, however, school districts were forced to move from decentralized, community-managed systems to those funded and supervised by state governments. A series of changes brought about this new centralized administration, but the primary force was depressed and recessed economic times. When localized education cost more than the public could afford in taxes, schools needed financial assistance to stay afloat. Thus, they agreed to let the state step in, which it did, taking control over education away from the local communities. As a result, parents lost control to professionals, generally superintendents; local schools lost power to centralized office administration; and districts lost jurisdiction to the state.
In addition to these changes, other changes occurred as well over the next fifty years. Sociologist Wayland Sloan describes these other changes as "ancillary structures" because they were neither mandated nor incorporated into a formalized construction of public education (as cited in Raywid, 1980, p. 134). Furthermore, being ancillary also made them free from public control. For example, the production and marketing of textbooks put publishers at the forefront of consumerism. Also, the creation of standardized exams, the establishment of accrediting associations, and the increased value of teacher education—more trends out of the control of local communities—made pulling district governance away from state hands a challenging endeavor (Raywid, 1980, p. 134).
In addition, the government also made it difficult to take back local control over education. The National Defense Education Act (NDEA) of 1958 provided financial aid to schools agreeing to enhance various academic and social sectors of education. Areas like math, science, languages, technical instruction, geography, English as a second language, and guidance counseling were slated for advancement under this act of Congress. In addition, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 influenced districts by threatening to withhold federal funding to school districts engaging in racial, religious, or ethnic discrimination. These legislative creations have been positive for educators and the students they serve, but they are still requirements passed down from the federal level that assure compliance through intimidation. While few people would encourage schools to abandon the teaching of math or science, and even fewer people would advance a racist school structure, these acts of the legislature have made it financially harmful to do so.
According to Dennis Doyle (1993), in the 1990s school districts had taken back what control they lost, and while the United States' system of education may have its difficulties, it can tout that it is
“… democratic, egalitarian, and meritocratic. It is robust, dynamic, and resilient. It is responsive—at least to fads of the moment—and it is well financed, by any measure. It is radically decentralized, at least by world standards, and each component of the education system, from humble rural school districts to great research universities, stands on its own bottom” (as cited in Schultz, 1994, p. 273–274.)
The United States is continuously compared to other industrialized nations because as countries with the power to succeed, we should be all successfully educated individuals. However, with freedom comes choice, and many people choose to be fair educators, okay administrators, and average students. What is average in America, though, is considered poor—and offers no competition—to other countries. "If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted...
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