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What Great Political Theorist Does Your State Govern Like?

By guest blogger Lauren Camera.

The edu-analysts at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute are out with a new report that attempts to classify state education governance structures along various lines. And it's pretty clever.

The study, officially titled "Schools of Thought: A Taxonomy of American Education Governance," examined the structures and processes that make up each state's education governance system and asked three main questions:

  • What are the major education governance structures and processes of each state?
  • How can we categorize states based on their systems of education governance?
  • How might different approaches to education governance constrain or facilitate the work of schools, districts, and states?

It was a hefty task as it included assessing the role of numerous stakeholders at the school, district, city, county, state, and federal levels. Think: teachers, principals, superintendents, mayors, city councils, boards of education, legislators, chief state school officers, governors, courts, teacher unions, curriculum and test developers, and more.

"Some of these entities have formal roles enshrined in state constitutions, laws, or regulations, while others have more informal or indirect roles," the researchers wrote. "But each has a stake in how decisions about education are made, and each can ultimately affect the education that children receive. It is the interaction across a multitude of entities—which often have competing agendas and interests—that makes governing education so complicated."

And there are some pretty interesting take-aways tucked inside the report.

For example:

  • Hawaii and North Carolina concentrate by far the most authority at the state level, while Wyoming leaves the most authority to local districts
  • Overall, states tended to preserve local decision-making authority: Forty-two states and the District of Columbia give districts partial or full control over the design of teacher evaluations, while just eight states mandate the use of a specific state-designed instrument. And 32 states plus D.C. allow districts to choose their own textbooks, while 18 require them to choose from a list of approved books.
  • Florida has the most consolidated system of education governance, with authority overwhelmingly concentrated in the state board of education and the state's few large school districts.
  • Alaska has the most distributed system of governance, with authority over higher education, vocational education, and adult basic education parceled out to the Board of Regents, the Commission on Postsecondary Education, and the Department of Labor and Workforce Development.
  • Thirty-one states plus D.C. give their state boards of education authority over preschool, 31 states plus D.C. give them authority over vocational education, and 27 states plus D.C. give them authority over adult basic education.
  • The most restrictive state in the union is Minnesota, which uses just one of 16 practices the researchers identified that encourage public participation: electing local school boards. It's also the only state without a state board of education that also has an appointed state education chief.
  • Wyoming, Montana, and Indiana do the most to encourage public participation.

(You can read the entire report here. Lead authors included Dara Zeehandelaar and David Griffith.)

On the whole, however, their findings weren't entirely conclusive.

"As most of history's greatest political thinkers recognized, every governing system has both strengths and weaknesses," the authors wrote. "Similarly, no known education governance type is discernibly best for students."

The current trend in most states, the researchers pointed out, is toward greater state control.

"State leaders wary of union influence at the district level have restricted bargaining rights, while those who doubt the capacity of local leaders are championing statewide recovery school districts," they wrote.

But in the end, they said, there's no one right answer or best way to govern.

"There is nothing inherently superior about a state-mandated teacher evaluation system or a state-run turnaround school, and in some states these reforms are already producing a backlash without producing better outcomes for students," they warned.

Even something that seems intrinsically good, like greater participation, can have its drawback, they noted: "A cacophony of voices may drown out experts or produce gridlock."

The best part about the report? It matched each state with a famous political leader or theorist whose governing styles best mirrors that of the state.

So, where does your state fit in?

Jeffersonians: Authority is concentrated at the local level and distributed among institutions. Public participation is encouraged.

  • Alaska
  • Arizona
  • California
  • Illinois
  • Missouri
  • Montana
  • Nebraska
  • North Dakota
  • Ohio
  • Wyoming

Hamiltonians: Authority is concentrated at the state level and consolidated in a few institutions. Public participation is discouraged.

  • Delaware
  • Hawaii
  • Maryland
  • Pennsylvania
  • Rhode Island
  • Virginia
  • West Virginia

Lincolnians: Authority is concentrated at the state level and consolidated in a few institutions. Public participation is encouraged.

  • D.C.
  • Michigan
  • Mississippi
  • Nevada
  • North Carolina
  • South Carolina
  • Tennessee

Lockeans: Authority is concentrated at the state level and distributed among institutions. Public participation is encouraged.

  • Alabama
  • Georgia
  • Indiana
  • New Mexico
  • Oklahoma
  • Washington

Burkeans: Authority is concentrated at the local level and distributed among institutions. Public participation is discouraged.

  • Arkansas
  • Iowa
  • Maine
  • Minnesota
  • New Hampshire
  • Vermont

Madisonians: Authority is concentrated at the state level and distributed among institutions. Public participation is discouraged.

  • Connecticut
  • Kentucky
  • Massachusetts
  • New Jersey
  • Wisconsin

Jacksonians: Authority is concentrated at the local level and consolidated in a few institutions. Public participation is encouraged.

  • Colorado
  • Kansas
  • Louisiana
  • Texas
  • Utah

Platonists: Authority is concentrated at the local level and consolidated in a few institutions. Public participation is discouraged.

  • Idaho
  • Florida
  • New York
  • Oregon
  • South Dakota
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