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Governing America's Schools: Changing the Rules
(A Report from the National Commission of Governing America's Schools)

The growing demand for organizational reform (evidenced by an increasing demand for charter schools, magnet schools, and school choice), the increase in home schooling, and the recent incidences of school takeovers by state and local governments indicate that many schools would benefit from changes in governance. A recently released report examines how school governance affects student learning. What does the report reveal about the governance of your school? Included: Two organizational models for effectively educating young people that spell out specific responsibilities for the state, school district, and individual schools.

"Within the scope of this project, governance is defined as who makes what decisions, and in what manner. In education, the 'who' is everybody from state legislators to parents. The 'what' covers everything from standards to parent involvement. The 'in what manner' or 'how' is everything from decisions made autonomously to those made within a framework established by others."
-- from Governing America's Schools: Changing the Rules

In January of 1998, the Education Commission of the States (ECS) launched a study of governance in K-12 public education. The study was the first phase of the Governing America's Schools Initiative, a project funded by a grant from the Joyce Foundation. The goals of that initiative are

  • to produce information that would help policymakers, educators, and the public make informed decisions about improving governance
  • to promote a national dialogue about improving governance.
The question driving the initiative, however, is a simple one: "How can states and communities organize themselves to effectively educate their young people?" From January 1998 to January 1999, the ECS worked with a variety of experts to develop a body of knowledge about issues affecting educational governance. That information-gathering phase of the project produced the following eight reports, which can be found on the ECS Web site:
  • The Invisible Hand of Ideology: Perspectives from the History of School Governance
  • Americans' Perceptions About Public Education
  • Future Trends Affecting Education
  • The Changing Landscape of Education Governance
  • Recent Changes in Public-Sector Governance
  • Emerging Strategies for Private-Sector Governance
  • Effective School Governance Practices: A Look at Today's Practice and Tomorrow's Promise
  • State Constitutions and Public Education Governance
In February 1999, armed with the information provided by the reports, the ECS formed the National Commission on Governing America's Schools. The commission's charge was to develop governance options for K-12 public schools, to present ideas and strategies for improving K-12 governance, and to advocate the implementation of reforms necessary to achieve optimal governance for schools in individual states and districts.

In response to that charge, the commission identified four broad governance options and formed a group to study and report on each. The four options were the following:

  • Improvement in the Existing System -- which calls for improving the quality and efficiency of existing district-run school systems.
  • Decentralization and School-Site Management -- which suggests retaining a district-wide board and executive structure but re-creating the central office as a provider of services to neighborhood-controlled schools.
  • Multiple Providers -- which involves creating a system of independently operated, though publicly accountable, schools.
  • Community Education Agency -- which encourages a varied supply of high-quality education options.

After studying the four broad options, the commission developed two specific governance plans for consideration by states and districts interested in improving their schools.


The ECS released the commission's final report on November 15, 1999. The report makes the following points:

  • The nation's expectations of public education have changed to reflect the belief that all students should be expected to achieve at high levels.
  • A move to standards-based education has shifted the focus of policymakers and the public from which children fail to which schools and districts fail children and why.
  • Research has identified characteristics of successful schools. They include
    1. a clear focus on academic learning in a climate of high expectations.
    2. a safe and orderly school environment.
    3. high standards for teachers, coupled with ongoing professional-development activities.
    4. collegial decision making and a supportive professional environment organized around a common mission.
    5. a partnership with parents and others in the community in support of students' high achievement.
    6. accountability for student performance.

The report goes on to outline the two governance models developed by the commission. Each model assigns clearly defined roles to the state, the district, and the individual schools. The two models follow.


A system of publicly authorized, publicly funded, and publicly operated schools, in which

the state

  • promotes high expectations.
  • establishes academic standards.
  • provides adequate financial resources to districts.
  • manages education information and reporting systems.
  • develops the state's K-12 public education infrastructure.
  • holds districts accountable for student performance.
  • aligns education codes with the demands of performance-based accountability.

the district

  • creates a vision for the entire district.
  • establishes district-wide standards and strategically aligns resources and policies to support them.
  • monitors, analyzes, and reports on school performance.
  • provides instructional leadership.
  • creates incentives for progress and consequences for failure for decision makers as well as for students.
  • gives parents the right to choose any public school in the district.
  • engages parents and the community, and partners with public and private organizations.

the school

  • develops, implements, and continuously fine-tunes plans for improving student learning.
  • hires, evaluates, and fires teachers and other school personnel.
  • writes its own budget and receives funding on a weighted per-pupil basis.
  • raises private revenue.
  • allocates resources.
  • determines staffing patterns and class sizes.
  • determines employees' salaries.
  • purchases services from the district or from outside providers.


A system of publicly authorized, publicly funded, and independently operated schools, in which

the state

  • promotes high expectations.
  • establishes minimum content and performance standards in a limited number of areas.
  • provides adequate financial resources to districts.
  • holds districts accountable for student achievement. (These organizational changes, the commission pointed out, will also require changes in state statutes and education codes.)

the district

  • authorizes and distributes public funds, and oversees schools.
  • educates, recruits, and refers staff for schools.
  • provides timely, accurate, and reliable information about schools.
  • rewards schools that fulfill their charter requirements and removes funding from those that do not.
  • engages in active partnership with public and private organizations. the school
  • sets standards, writes curriculum, designs instruction, and controls use of time.
  • writes its own budget and receives funding on a weighted per-pupil basis.
  • borrows and spends money, purchases and leases space and equipment, buys insurance, and purchases advice and assistance.
  • raises private money.
  • hires and evaluates principals, teachers, and other school staff, and negotiates their pay, benefits, and responsibilities.
  • establishes standards and processes for student admission.
  • establishes requirements for student effort, attendance, and conduct.


The commission's report points out that both governance models would
  • strengthen, not discard, the public system of education.
  • allow money to follow the child to the school he or she attends.
  • grant individual schools control over their personnel and budget.
  • give parents more choice about where their children attend school.
  • provide parents and the community with good information on student, teacher, and school performance.
  • redefine labor-management relations.
  • focus accountability systems on improved student achievement.
  • strengthen local school boards.

The report adds, "These two approaches to public education governance are evolutionary, rather than revolutionary. Far from dismantling current structures and processes, they seek to preserve public education and build on the strengths of the prevailing system, and to infuse it with a greater capacity for adaptability, flexibility and accountability."


In the final -- and current -- phase of the Governing America's Schools Initiative, the National Commission of Governing America's Schools and ECS staff will write editorials and articles. In addition, they will hold state, regional, and national meetings for the purpose of promoting discussion about K-12 educational governance and work with state and school district leaders interested in redesigning their governance systems.

Judging by initial reaction to the report's release, "promoting discussion" shouldn't be a problem. Reaching a consensus, however, might be. The comments of Mary Ellen Maxwell, president of the National School Boards Association, are typical of the report's critics.

"In addressing the current system, the commission has made a positive contribution to the governance discussion with the way it fine-tunes this structure of publicly operated schools," Maxwell said. She added, however, that "the alternative approach suggested by the report -- a system of independently operated schools -- appears to be so far removed from reality that it is not only unworkable but also disconcerting, since it would take away key roles and responsibilities of the elected school board, effectively shutting the public out from any meaningful decision making in the schools."

The commission's report, -Governing America's Schools: Changing the Rules, - states, "Governance arrangements establish the rules of the game. In the educational system, the real work of learning happens in the classroom, in the interaction between teacher and student. But, as the Committee for Economic Development noted in its 1994 report, - Putting Learning First: Governing and Managing the Schools for High Achievement, - 'this interaction is affected by innumerable large and small decisions made by principals, school boards, superintendents, state legislatures, education department officials, and the federal government. These decisions and their implementation can either aid or hinder quality education in the classroom. This is the heart of education governance.'

"Without good governance, good schools are the exception, not the rule."

The question of what makes good governance, however, is yet to be answered.


To purchase bound, printed copies of -Governing America's Schools: Changing the Rules, -contact

The ECS Distribution Center
707 17th Street, Suite 2700
Denver, CO 80202-3427
phone: 303-299-3692
e-mail: [email protected]

The cost is $12.50 plus $4.25 postage and handling.

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