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Governing America’s Schools: The Shifting Playing Field

by Joseph Murphy - 2000

This essay argues that the landscape of educational control is being reshaped in the post-industrial era. It reviews the current governance problems in education and details the range of possible governance models for post-industrial schooling. The analysis begins by describing the problems that governance must address and identifying the professional-statist domination of school governance and the reliance on bureaucratic mechanisms to exercise control as the two most serious contemporary governance problems. The discussion then moves to a description of the various possibilities for school governance in the future. Five types of control processes are considered: state control, citizen control, professional control, community control, and market control. The paper concludes by outlining the design principles that form the basis for rethinking school governance in a post-industrial world: localism, direct democracy, lay control, choice, and democratic professionalism.

This essay argues that the landscape of educational control is being reshaped in the post-industrial era. It reviews the current governance problems in education and details the range of possible governance models for post-industrial schooling. The analysis begins by describing the problems that governance must address and identifying the professional-statist domination of school governance and the reliance on bureaucratic mechanisms to exercise control as the two most serious contemporary governance problems. The discussion then moves to a description of the various possibilities for school governance in the future. Five types of control processes are considered: state control, citizen control, professional control, community control, and market control. The paper concludes by outlining the design principles that form the basis for rethinking school governance in a post-industrial world: localism, direct democracy, lay control, choice, and democratic professionalism.


Since governance is the steering mechanism of the system, the failure of governance affects all other subsystems in major and negative ways. Absent reform of the governance function, reforms of other subsystems will have only diminished or no impact on the system’s performance. (Consortium on Productivity in the Schools, 1995, p. 49)

Reform efforts will have only limited impact until the role of governance is addressed. (Twentieth Century Fund, 1992, p. 1)

There is a critical need for research into the relationships between alternative patterns of educational governance and their ability effectively to mobilize human energy and intellect, realizing personal and social educational aspirations. (Swanson, 1989, p. 270)

Because governance can be interpreted in different ways—and to prevent undue spillover into other dimensions of the educational landscape—it is important to begin with some definitional treatment of the concept at hand. Governance is about control—who drives the educational bus, if you will. At its core, governance is thus at least about two issues: (1) the way control is (or is not) partitioned among the various stakeholders in the educational enterprise and (2) the set of rules and practices developed by controlling actors that shape the schooling endeavor.

Why should we be concerned with the governance issue? One response, well developed by the Consortium on Renewing Education (1998), posits the claim that only simultaneous attacks on the entire educational system will lead to improvements. Certainly, because governance is one major component of the system, we would be ill-advised to neglect a thoughtful review of the topic: “We are now questioning the efficacy and attempting to reform the basic structure of schooling in this country. Governance cannot be excepted from searching analysis” (Danzberger, 1992, p. 113).

A second answer focuses on the neglect of school governance in the reform equation. According to some analysts, there has been a profound silence on the issue of educational governance over the last two decades. Sarason (1995), for instance, argues that “with rare exceptions. . . critics accepted the existing governance structure as a given” (p. 1). The Committee for Economic Development report (1994) draws a similar conclusion:

Few major reform initiatives of the past ten years have attempted to define the roles and responsibilities of different levels of governance or to improve the abilities of the individuals and institutions responsible for making critical educational decisions. (p. 2)

Others underscore the saliency of the question by attending to problems with the existing governance system as well as “the stultifying consequences of educational governance” (Sarason, 1995, p. 115). While this line of analysis is developed fully in the body of the paper, an advance organizer would look something like this: for a variety of reasons the educational governance system is not working well, it is contributing to the poor performance of the educational system—it is “inimical to innovation and meaningful change” (p. 115) and “intractable to improvement” (p. 134). In short, we have “governance gridlock that prevents meaningful reform” (Committee for Economic Development, 1994, p. 29).

Still another reply to the relevancy question has been chiseled from the material on the effects of educational governance on schooling. Reviewers here hold that “the way authority is structured and exercised shapes the intellectual and moral character of the school, thereby profoundly influencing student development” (Snauwaert, 1993, p. 2).

The real work of learning happens in the classroom, in the interaction between teacher and student. 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. (Committee for Economic Development, 1994, p. 2)

Finally, it is important to attend to educational governance issues because it is here, analysts aver, that important understandings of and foundations for a democratic society both take root and play out.

Starting with the analysis above on the importance of the governance issue—and with a clear understanding that governance both helps define and is shaped by other pieces of the educational equation—this paper attempts to map out the shifting governance playing field in education. Since that is the goal, it follows certain paths but ignores others. For example, it attends much more to issues of governance at the macro-level of analysis—Should control be in the hands of the professional class or be deposited with citizens? Does a statist approach or a market system provide a more appropriate control structure?—than it does with micro-level control questions—Should professional control be the province of administrators or teachers?

We begin with an analysis of governance problems in education. We start with a description of the problem set we believe governance reforms must address. In the later part of this section, we highlight governance problems specifically. Here again, we unpack certain issues while neglecting others entirely. To a certain extent, the spotlight is directed by constraints of space. More appropriately, it is directed by our understanding of perhaps the two most serious governance problems afoot today—professional-statist domination of school governance and reliance by actors in these areas on bureaucratic mechanisms to actualize their control.

The second section of the paper opens with a description of possibilities for school governance for tomorrow’s schools. Or more concretely, the raw material from which designs for new systems of governance can be sculpted is presented. Five clusters of control mechanisms are examined: the state, citizens, the profession, the community, and the economy. Specifically, the third section outlines the design principles that form the foundational pillars for rethinking governance. These pillars will, we believe, anchor specific reform ideas in the areas of governance as we move into the twenty-first century.


Governance is now perceived as one of the greatest barriers, if not the primary obstacle to systemic reform of education. (Danzberger, 1992, p. 32)

Mounting concern over the aims and achievements of American public schools emphasizes the need for continuing analysis of how the schools are run and who runs them. (Rosenthal, 1969, p. 3)

The struggle to recast school governance can be traced to two broad areas: discontent with educational outcomes and critical reviews of the core governance system of schooling. Discontent with outcomes draws strength from three problems: (1) the perceived inability of public schooling to deliver a quality product, (2) the seeming failure of education to heal itself, and (3) a growing disconnect between the public and public education. Critiques of extant governance systems center on two topics: (1) frustration with the government-professional monopoly and (2) critical analyses of the basic governance infrastructure—bureaucracy.

The consequence of the above noted forces is a significant reinforcement of the “common and widely reiterated observation of a declining confidence in public education . . . [and] the mounting criticisms of the established form and content of publicly-funded educational systems” (Mayberry, 1991, p. 1), along with increasing demands for reforms—reforms that represent an overhaul of current governing arrangements. Whitty (1984) reinforces this latter point, noting that “it is important to recognize that . . . public education fails to serve the majority of its clients and hence makes them potential supporters of reactionary proposals” (p. 54).


The fact that despite all that has been tried in the post–World War II era to improve our schools, the quality of education, however defined, remains what it has been or is getting worse. (Sarason, 1995, p. 15)

Outcome Concerns

The average twenty-five-year-old graduate in the United States has the eighth-grade academic skills and the virtually nonexistent vocational skills with which he or she emerged from high school. (Marshall & Tucker, 1992, p. 69)

Current performance. Richards, Shore, and Sawicky (1996) hit the mark directly when they report that “today the public discourse about American education tends to be preoccupied with failure” (p. 15). The most recent decade contains a “raft of hopeless narratives on public education” (Fine, 1993, p. 33). What analysts see as frustration over the continuing inadequacies of primary and secondary education in the United States is a multifaceted phenomenon. Or, stated in an alternate form, the perception that the level and quality of education in the United States is less than many desire is buttressed by data on a wide variety of outcomes. Specifically, critics argue that data assembled in each of the following performance dimensions provide a not-very-reassuring snapshot of the current performance of the American educational system: (1) academic achievement in basic subject areas—compared to student performance in other countries; (2) functional literacy; (3) preparation for employment; (4) the holding power of schools (drop-out rates); (5) knowledge of specific subject areas such as geography and economics; (6) mastery of higher-order skills; and (7) initiative, responsibility, and citizenship (Committee for Economic Development, 1994; Marshall & Tucker, 1992; Murnane & Levy, 1996).1 Perhaps even more important than the data is the fact that “the experience of most Americans tells them that the nation’s school system is in trouble and that the problems are getting worse” (Mathews, 1996, p. 1).

Needed performance. Two issues in particular ribbon forward-looking analyses of educational outcomes: (1) the inability of the educational enterprise to enhance levels of productivity to meet the needs of the changing workforce and (2) the failure of schools to successfully educate all of the nation’s children, especially the poor. While analysts acknowledge that student achievement has remained fairly stable over the last quarter century, they fault the education enterprise for its inability to keep pace with the increasing expectations from a changing economy (Committee for Economic Development, 1994; Consortium on Productivity in the Schools, 1995): “the requirements the world was placing on school graduates were dramatically higher, but performance had stayed the same” (Marshall & Tucker, 1992, p. 79).

One side of the problem these critics discuss is the belief that systems that hold steady in today’s world are actually in decline. While others see stability, they see “increasing obsolescence of the education provided by most U.S. schools” (Murnane and Levy, 1996, p. 6), and they question “why schools have remained what they were and are despite the lack of desirable outcomes” (Sarason, 1995, p. 110).

The other side of the productivity issue raised by these reviewers is the claim that because of the changing nature of the economy outlined earlier, the level of outcomes needed by students must be significantly increased.

Today’s schools look much like Ford in 1926. The products they produce—student achievement levels—are not worse than they were 20 years ago; in most respects they are sightly better. But in those 20 years, the job market has changed radically. Just as the Model T that was good enough in 1921 was not good enough in 1926, the education that was adequate for high-wage employers in 1970 is no longer adequate today. (Murnane & Levy, 1996, p. 77)

They find that the schools are not meeting this new standard for productivity. They argue that “the majority of students fail to leave school with the skills they need” (Marshall & Tucker, 1992, p. 67), that “American schools are not providing students with the learning that they will need to function effectively in the 21st Century” (Consortium on Productivity in the Schools, 1995, p. 3).

Of special concern to productivity critics is the belief that nearly all the future gains will need to come in the area of educational quality. The Committee on Economic Development (1994) depicts the argument as follows:

In the past, much of the contribution of elementary education to economic growth has come from increases in the “quantity” of education. Although there is still room for improvement (about 15 percent of twenty-four- to twenty-five-year-olds do not have a high school diploma), much of the future contribution will have to come from increasing the “quality” of students graduating from our high schools. (p. 8)

Another concern is that the outcome standards themselves are being recast:

The skills that students need are not just more of what the schools have always taught, such as basic skills in mathematics, but also skills that the schools have rarely taught—the ability to work with complex knowledge and to make decisions under conditions of conflicting inadequate evidence. (Consortium on Productivity in the Schools, 1995, p. 9)

Complicating all of this is the knowledge that high levels of performance must be attained by nearly all of society’s children.

Our task is to shift the whole curve of American educational performance radically upward, and at the same time to close substantially the gap between the bottom and the top of the curve. For the first time in American history, we have to have an education system that really educates everyone, our poor and our minorities as well as our most fortunate. (Marshall & Tucker, 1992, p. 82)

Students who leave school having failed to meet the new performance standards will face increasingly dismal prospects in the twenty-first-century workplace.

Inability to Successfully Reform

For well over a decade, policy makers, business leaders, and many educators have been calling for a major overhaul of our nation’s stagnating system of public education. Yet, in terms of improved student achievement, we have precious little to show for all the rhetoric, goal setting, and haphazard experimentation. (Committee for Economic Development, 1994, p. x)

What appears to be especially damaging to public education is the perceived inability of the schooling industry to reform itself. Questions raised by analysts who take the long-term view on this issue are particularly demoralizing. For example, according to Beers and Ellig (1994):

[Over the last 40 years,] public school leaders have overseen the implementation of many of the most persistently called-for proposals for school reform. The ever-present call for more funding has been met by tripling real per-pupil expenditures from their 1960 levels. The demand for greater teacher professionalism has motivated a 50 percent increase in average teacher salaries since 1960, adjusted for inflation. Class sizes have fallen by a third since the mid-1960s, and most states have continued to raise graduation requirements. (p. 19)

What has resulted from these efforts, critics argue, has not been an increase in educational quality but rather a proliferation of professional and bureaucratic standards (Hill, Pierce, & Guthrie, 1997; Whitty, 1984), the creation of subsides for bureaucracy (Beers & Ellig, 1994), “a deepening antagonism between professional educators and the public” (Marshall & Tucker, 1992, p. 79), and the strengthening of a centralized educational system in which “all risks of failure are shifted onto parents, taxpayers, and children” (Payne, 1995, p. 3). Beers and Ellig (1994) make this point in dramatic fashion when they claim that “in a very real sense we have tried to run the public schools the same way the Soviets tried to run factories, and now we’re paying the price” (p. 20).2 The effect, critics maintain, is that reform has reinforced the very dynamics that are promoting self-destruction in public education. The natural consequence, they hold, must be the emergence of new forms of educational institutions and new models of school governance.

Also troubling, if not surprising given the analysis just presented, is the feeling that the very substantial efforts to strengthen education over the last 15 years in particular have not produced much in terms of improvement across the seven outcome dimensions listed above. As Richards and his colleagues (1996) document, public interest in alternative governance arrangements for schools reflects a profound disappointment that the plethora of school reform initiatives launched over the last 15 years has failed to turn the tide, that “despite considerable energy, initial bursts of optimism, and abundant promises, a good many efforts to reform schools, though not all, are failing in the 1990s” (Mathews, 1996, p. 16). There is an expanding agreement on the need to overhaul school-governance systems as well as an emerging belief that conditions in the area of school governance are so bleak that any change could hardly make matters worse.

Growing Disconnect With the Public

The public is dissatisfied with our schools, and educators are perceived as resistant to change and concerned only with money and control, and lacking a leadership capable of changing educational practices, organizational characteristics and the relationships with the larger community. (Sarason, 1995, p. 17)

Despite a long tradition of support for public education, Americans today seem to be halfway out the school house door. (Mathews, 1996, p. 2)

Critics aver that at the same time we are discovering that traditional attacks on our problems not only fail to attack the roots of the nation’s educational problems but may be actually crippling public education, we are witnessing a fundamental disconnect between the public and the public schools. A recent Public Agenda report, for example, asserts that “in the battle over the future of public education, the public is essentially ‘up for grabs’” (cited in Bradley, 1995, p. 1). As one indicator of this gulf, Public Agenda researchers report that the public in general and parents in particular see vouchers as an unsurpassed vehicle for helping students who are failing in school (Bradley, 1995).

An especially thoughtful and detailed description of society’s deepening loss of confidence in public education has been provided by Mathews (1996). Based on his work, Mathews argues that “the public and the public schools [are] in fact moving apart, that the historical compact between them [is] in danger of dissolving” (p. i). Mathews documents the decline in public confidence in public schools in a number of ways. He cites data from the National Opinion Research Center that reveals a 40 percent drop (from 37 to 15 percent) from 1973 to 1993 in those expressing confidence in educational institutions. He also cites data showing an increase of 125 percent (from 8 to 18 percent) during this same time frame in citizens expressing low confidence in public institutions (p. 9). Using a more direct measure, he marshals information that reveals that citizens prefer private schools over public ones: “A virtual chorus said that they would take their children out of public schools if they had that option” (p. 22). Kaufman (1996) adds to this later analysis:

Parents rank private schools higher in 11 of 13 categories, including preparing students for college, safety and discipline. Public schools rank higher only in serving students with special needs and teaching children how to deal with people of diverse backgrounds. (p. 72)


CED believes that our education governance system, as currently operating, is a serious barrier to improving our schools. (Committee for Economic Development, 1994, p. 2)

As noted above, critical reviews focusing specifically on governance tend to cluster into two groups: (1) critiques of the governmental-professional model of governance that has dominated education for the past century and (2) attacks on the basic infrastructure of school governance—bureaucracy.

General Critiques of Government (State) and Professional Control

The trend toward increasing centralization and inequality signals a profound need for rethinking our systems of institutional governance. (Snauwaert, 1993, p. 104)

Citizens are becoming increasingly alienated from government and politics. They do not trust public officials. (Hawley, 1995, p. 741)

One strand of an emerging political mosaic is plummeting support for government. In many ways, Americans “have disengaged psychologically from politics and governance” (Putnam, 1995, p. 68): “The growth of cynicism about democratic government shifts America toward, not away from, a more generalized norm of disaffection” (Elshtain, 1995, p. 25). Or, as claimed recently in Time, “alienation has joined the mainstream” (Gibbs, 1997, p. 45). Not surprisingly, and consistent with the central premise of this paper, these indicators of dissatisfaction and discontent provide ample support for the claim that something is happening to traditional approaches to public governance (Bauman, 1996).

Critics maintain that government in the United States is troubled and is becoming more so. They discern a sense of hopelessness about civic government (Katz, 1992) and a crisis of confidence in public institutions and representative government. They point to surveys and opinion polls showing that citizens are distrustful of government agencies and regularly opposed to government sector programs and policies. These polls reveal that: only three in ten citizens believe that government is operated for the benefit of all citizens (Savas, 1987); one in two citizens believes that the federal government has become so large and so influential that it represents a real and immediate danger to the rights and freedoms of citizens (Urschel, 1995); only one in three voters expresses trust in government—down from four in five in the late 1950s (Savas, 1982); and, in 1993, only 13 percent of the citizenry trusted the government to do the right thing most of the time, compared to 62 percent in 1964 (Bauman, 1996). Other chroniclers of this unrest speak of a mounting sense of skepticism about the public sector in general (Fitzgerald, 1988) and “skepticism as to the ability of government to implement social goals” (Hula, 1990a, p. xiii) in particular. They believe that a “philosophy borne of suspicion for big government may underlie this [governance] revolution in America” (Fitzgerald, 1988, p. 20).

Still other reviewers discern a “deeper . . . and much more dangerous” (Savas, 1982, p. 1) cynicism toward (Hula, 1990b), distaste for (Donahue, 1989), or distrust of government and government officials among citizens (De Hoog, 1984). They describe a “culture of resistance, bitterness, and adversariness” (Bauman, 1996, p. 626). They paint a picture of “‘political bankruptcy,’ a vaguely defined state of popular alienation and disaffection from government which stops short of revolution” (Hood, 1994, p. 91). These analysts portray a growing discontent with activist government (Hirsch, 1991) and the rise and spread of an antigovernment philosophy in the 1970s and 1980s, a time during which the “government plumbed new depths of disfavor” (Donahue, 1989, p. 3). They describe a “fundamental concern that government simply ‘doesn’t work.’ Planning is seen as inadequate, bureaucracy as inefficient and outcomes highly problematic” (Hula, 1990a, p. xiii). They go on to argue that the consent of the governed is being withdrawn to a significant degree. In its softest incarnation, this cynicism leads citizens to argue that government is no longer a reasonable solution to all problems (Florestano, 1991) and to question the usefulness of much government-initiated activity. At worst, it has nurtured the belief that government is fated to fail at whatever it undertakes (Starr, 1991). In many cases, it has nurtured the development of a variety of antigovernment political and social movements. There is little question that this widespread discontent has spilled over into public education (Katz, 1992). As Bauman (1996) notes, “One could argue that people hold a negative view of the public schools precisely because they are public institutions” (p. 628).

Given the cyclical nature of policy development and other value expressions in American society, it should surprise no one to learn that some of this rising tide of dissatisfaction with public sector initiatives can be characterized as a response to the nearly unbroken growth of government over the last three quarters of the twentieth century—a counter-reaction to the Progressive philosophy that has dominated the policy agenda for so long. According to Hood (1994), for example, the growth of the public sector contained the seeds of its own destruction. The public sector model is, in many ways, simply aging and wearing out. Once a major economic model gains ascendancy, “dissatisfaction builds up over time. Unwanted side-effects of the policy [become] more clearly perceived. . . . At the same time, the shortcomings of the alternative orientation [—the market, direct democracy, and voluntary association in this case—are] forgotten, because they have not been recently experienced. Pressure then starts to build for the policy orientation to go over on the other track” (p. 15).

Another piece of the puzzle focuses on the widespread perception that the state is overinvolved in the life of the citizenry. Critics note that more and more citizens are chafing under the weight and scope of government activity (Himmelstein, 1983; Meltzer & Scott, 1978). They characterize a government that has gone too far (Hirsch, 1991)—“public ownership that is more extensive than can be justified in terms of the appropriate role of public enterprises in mixed economies” (Hemming & Mansoor, 1988, p. 3). They argue that the state has become involved in the production of goods and services that do not meet the market failure tests (Pack, 1991) and that government agencies have pushed “themselves into areas well beyond governance. They [have] become involved in the business of business” (President’s Commission on Privatization, 1988, p. 3). The results are predictable: The state, it is claimed, occupies an increasingly large space on the governance landscape, welfare loss due to collective consumption increases (Oates, 1972), and citizens experience an increasing need for more nongovernmental space (Florestano, 1991). Calls for a recalibration of the governance equation are increasingly heard.

Expanding numbers of citizens begin to experience “some public sector institutions as controlling rather than enabling, as limiting options rather than expanding them, as wasting rather than making the best use of resources” (Martin, 1993, p. 8). Of particular concern here is the issue of values. On one front, increasing numbers of individuals and groups have come to believe that state intrusiveness includes efforts to establish value preferences (Cibulka, 1996; Heinz, 1983; Himmelstein, 1983)—values that they believe often undermine their ways of life. Others argue that, at least in some cases, through interest group and bureaucratic capture, some public sector institutions have actually destroyed the values that they were established to develop and promote (Hood, 1994).

Discontent can also be traced to recent critical analyses of the model of public sector activity developed to support expanded state control. The critique here is of three types. First, when examined as they are put into practice, the assumptions anchoring public sector activity over the last 30 years look much less appealing than they do when viewed in the abstract (i.e., conceptually). Indeed, “many of the assumptions and predictions on which the earlier growth of government was based have proved either to be false or at least to be subject to much greater doubt” (President’s Commission on Privatization, 1988, pp. 249–250). Thus, the attack on extensive state control rests on the way in which its limitations have become visible (Pirie, 1988). Foundational propositions such as the nonpolitical nature of public sector economic activities have come under attack as it has been determined that “decisions affecting the economy [are often] made on political grounds instead of economic grounds” (Savas, 1987, p. 8). On the other hand, much of the critique of the market economy upon which public sector growth has been justified, especially market failure, has been weakened with the advent of sociotechnical changes associated with a shift from an industrial to a postindustrial society (Hood, 1994).

Second, “structural weaknesses inherent in the nature of public-sector supply itself . . . which undermine the whole basis on which it is established” (Pirie, 1988, p. 20) have become more visible—visible to the point that some advocates claim that state ownership and management are inherently flawed. Concomitantly, both the efficiency and effectiveness of governmental activities have begun to be questioned seriously.

Third, it is suggested that the reforms that created the large public sector “are themselves sorely in need of reform, as mistakes, excess, waste, and scandals appear[ed] and the inevitable institutional arteriosclerosis set in” (Savas, 1982, p. 2). Reform is increasingly seen in terms of alternatives to rather than the repair of the existing public sector. Changes in governance structures are often privileged in these reform strategies.

Attacks on the Bureaucratic Infrastructure of Schooling

Too much bureaucracy . . . is at the heart of educational mediocrity. (Snauwaert, 1993, p. 92)

The bureaucratic structure is failing in a manner so critical that adaptations will not forestall its collapse. (Clark & Meloy, 1989, p. 293)

“In recent years, critics have argued that the reforms of the Progressive Era produced bureaucratic arteriosclerosis, insulation from parents and patrons, and the low productivity of a declining industry protected as a quasi monopoly” (Tyack, 1993, p. 3). There is growing sentiment that the existing governance and management systems are unsustainable (Rungeling & Glover, 1991). Behind this basic critique lie several beliefs: that states are attempting to micro-manage schools and that central office staff are too numerous and too far removed from local schools to understand the needs of teachers, children, and families—that bureaucracies may be working well for those that run them but that they are not serving children well. It is increasingly being concluded that the existing bureaucratic system of school governance and administration is “incapable of addressing the technical and structural shortcomings of the public educational system” (Lawton, 1991, p. 4).

More finely grained criticism of the bureaucratic infrastructure of schooling comes from a variety of quarters. There are those who contend that schools are so paralyzed by the “bureaucratic arteriosclerosis” noted above by Tyack (1993, p. 3) that “professional judgment” (Hill & Bonan, 1991, p. 65), “innovation and creativity” (Lindelow, 1981, p. 98), “morale” (David, 1989, p. 45), “creative capacity” (Snauwaert, 1993, p. 5), and responsibility have all been paralyzed. Other reformers maintain “that school bureaucracies, as currently constituted could [never] manage to provide high-quality education” (Elmore, 1993, p. 37) and, even worse, that bureaucratic governance and management cause serious disruptions in the educational process and are “paralyzing American education . . . [and] getting in the way of children’s learning” (Sizer, 1984, p. 206). These scholars view bureaucracy as a governance-management system that deflects attention from the core tasks of learning and teaching (Elmore, 1990):

Since the student is the prime producer of learning and since he is not part of the bureaucracy, and not subject to bureaucratic accountability, bureaucracy and its whole value structure must be seen as irrelevant at best, and obstructive at worst, to true learning relationships. (Seeley, 1980, p. 8)

Some analysts also believe that bureaucracy is counterproductive to the needs and interests of educators within the school—“that it is impractical, and it does not fit the psychological and personal needs of the workforce” (Clark & Meloy, 1989, p. 293), that it weakens the authority of teachers, and that it is incompatible with the professional organization (Sackney & Dibski, 1992). Still other critics suggest that bureaucratic management is inconsistent with the sacred values and purposes of education—they question “fundamental ideological issues pertaining to bureaucracy’s meaning in a democratic society” (Campbell, Fleming, Newell, & Bennion, 1987, p. 73) and find that “[i]t is inconsistent to endorse democracy in society but to be skeptical of shared governance in our schools” (Glickman, 1990, p. 74). Other reform proponents hold that the existing organizational-governance structure of schools is neither sufficiently flexible nor sufficiently robust to meet the needs of students in a post-industrial society (Sizer, 1984). Finally, some analysts contend that the rigidities of bureaucracy, by making schools nearly impenetrable by citizens, impede the ability of parents and citizens to govern and reform schooling (Sarason, 1995).

Not unexpectedly, given this tremendous attack on the basic organizational and governance infrastructure of schooling, stakeholders at all levels are arguing that “[a]mbitious, if not radical, reforms are required to rectify this situation” (Elmore, 1993, p. 34), that “the excessively centralized, bureaucratic control of . . . schools must end” (Carnegie Forum, cited in Hanson, 1991, pp. 2–3). In its place, some reformers are arguing for redesigning state control of education. Other analysts look to replace government control with market mechanisms. Still others see hope in systems that are more professionally controlled. Others appeal to more robust models of democratic governance.


The question for the state is whom it shall empower to decide what is best. (Coons & Sugarman, 1978, p. 45)

We need, in short, a dialogue that produces thoughtful, well-founded, and defensible rationales for continuing, modifying, or structurally changing current education governance and its functions. Without such a dialogue, we shall find ourselves going down a road without knowing where we are going, or if we arrive at the desired destination. (Danzberger, 1992, p. 27)

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, social and economic forces were at play that were to result in dramatic changes in American society. The nation witnessed the shift from an agrarian to an industrial society, with the accompanying growth of industrial capitalism and the liberal democratic state. Our understanding of education and schooling was profoundly shaped by these forces. Scientific views of learning anchored in the newly emerging discipline of psychology, especially behavioral psychology, and in modern views of organizations taking root from the rapidly developing field of management, especially scientific management, became the twin pillars upon which schooling in the twentieth century was constructed. At the heart of the modern system of education were new perspectives on and rules of control. What had heretofore been a relatively democratic governance process became displaced by centralized, elite, professional control (Katz, 1992; Tyack, 1974).

Between 1890 and 1920, every major school system in the industrial north underwent administrative reform. This reform movement was designed to produce maximum efficiency and social order. To achieve these ends, the movement sought to centralize decision-making power in the hands of powerful superintendents and small, citywide school boards comprised predominantly of successful business and professional men. A bureaucratic structure was created that limited popular representation, insulating policymakers from the demands of working and lower-middle-class interests. Although premised upon “getting politics out of the schools,” administrative reform actually exchanged one political structure for another. An essentially democratic system was exchanged for an autocratic one. (Snauwaert, 1993, p. 13)

A central premise of this paper is that as we enter the twenty-first century, we are in the midst of another major shift, although this time we find ourselves moving away from industrial capitalism and the liberal democratic state. The shift is marked by powerful new economic and social dynamics. And, as was the case in the past, these forces are exerting considerable influence on our understanding of education and our conceptions of schooling.

The question at hand is: What does all of this mean for the control of education in a postindustrial world? Will the educational bus continue to be driven by government agents and professional educators? Or will their grasp on the wheel of control be loosened? Is it possible that these long-dominant actors may be thrown off the bus altogether? Perhaps we will be chauffeured by a collective of relevant stakeholders. In this section of the paper, we outline some possible answers to these questions. We outline five distinct governance options for education in a postindustrial world (Table 1).


Underlying the administrative progressive’s conception of democracy is the view that relatively few people possess the intellectual ability or the education to pass judgment on public policy; expert control and bureaucratic administration are necessary in a complex world that demands scientifically informed judgments. In such a world, only “governments of experts” can manage public affairs. (Snauwaert, 1993, p. 21)

Regulation is even more costly to society than the initial resource misallocations. (Pack, 1991, p. 282)

Fueled by ambivalence, if not hostility, toward democracy and the emerging pull of scientific management with its allure of rationality and efficiency, state control had become the core component of educational governance by the early 1900s. In conjunction with professional administrators, governments began to construct the bureaucratic infrastructure on which the modern educational system in the United States was built.

At the heart of this emerging system of state control was, and continues to be, three central ideas: representative democracy, political and administrative elites, and bureaucratic machinery. Representative democracy is what its name implies, a system of governance “in which some of the people, chosen by all, govern in all public matters all of the time” (Barber, 1984, p. xix). It is a system in which sovereignty is transferred from citizens to a select few. A rational system of control—bureaucracy—is constructed to ensure that the enterprise functions effectively. Regulation becomes the transmission of the new administrative system. Often labeled “elite democracy,” government control is, as Schumpeter (cited in Snauwaert, 1993) argues, “[t]he rule of the politician” (p. 21)—and, we might add, of administrative agents at key intersections of the bureaucratic infrastructure (Buchanan, 1977; Niskanen, 1971; Tullock, 1965).

As discussed earlier, the bureaucratic backbone of state control has come under considerable scrutiny over the last few decades. Similar, if less visible, attacks have been leveled against political and administrative elites and representative democracy (see, for example, the public choice literature). Not surprisingly, assaults on all three pillars of state control attend in detail to the fact that these core elements negate the legitimate exercise of control by citizens—in both the economic and political sense of participation—and constrain the interests of professionals.


At the same time, many of the attractions that propelled government to a central role in the school governance drama remain. Rationality and efficiency have hardly lost their allure. It should come as little surprise then to discover that many of the reform strategies afoot today rely upon state control as the appropriate engine for school improvement. The entire systemic reform movement, for example, is an effort to strengthen education through state control mechanisms. Much of the struggle to professionalize schooling (e.g., standards, licensure, accreditation) is rooted in the traditional state-professional control complex—although in a relationship tilted more toward the interests of the profession than has been the case in the past. “New” reform ideas that spotlight state control include: mayoral control of schools; many of accountability measures, including reconstitution and bankruptcy actions; and standards raising and assessment movements writ large. On the other hand, as Snauwaert (1993) notes: “Bureaucracy and elite control are not inevitable. They have been chosen. Other possibilities exist” (p. 103). We turn to some of these alternatives below, although we will see that they take us in quite different directions.


Whatever the difficulties of obtaining the impossible, and however inadequate the performance of governmental units, . . . democratic theory is an appropriate standard by which to judge educational governance. (Zeigler, Jennings, & Peak, 1974, p. 243)

Democracy is essentially coercive. The winners get to use public authority to impose their policies on the losers. (Chubb & Moe, 1990, p. 28)

Some who have questioned current governance arrangements are calling for heightened and more direct citizen control of education. Central to this line of work are critical analyses of government activity and reviews on the growing disaffection for government felt by citizens, both areas that were explored in earlier sections of this paper. Behind both is the belief that representative democracy is failing and that control, or at least more control, should be vested in the citizenry.

Arguments for citizen control of education are also ribboned with attacks on professional claims to a privileged position in the control algorithm. The rationale here is twofold: “substantial portions of the ‘services’ provided by schools are hardly so precise or value free as to make them understandable only to experts” (Zeigler et al., 1974, p. 248) and, more critically, “experts have not demonstrated they know extraordinarily more about education than laymen” (p. 248). The strong professional grip on the wheel of the bus called educational governance should be loosened, advocates of enhanced democracy suggest. More direct control by citizens and families is needed, they aver. A desire to return to an earlier and “better” time—when “the teaching profession was weak and the larger society as represented by the state was relatively inactive” (Swanson, 1989, p. 280)—finds its way into much of the discussion in this area.

Finally, whether based on Sarason’s (1995) political principle, Cronin’s (1989) conception of direct democracy, Barber’s (1984) thoughts about strong democracy, or Snauwaert’s (1993) views about developmental conceptions of democracy, there is a mushrooming sense that citizen control is simply the right way to think about governance. This is both a critique of representative governance (i.e., state control)—

Strong democracy tries to revitalize citizenship without neglecting the problems of efficient government by defining democracy as a form of government in which all of the people govern themselves in at least some public matters at least some of the time. To legislate and to implement laws at least some of the time is to keep alive the meaning and function of citizenship in all of us all of the time; whereas to delegate the governing power, even if only to representatives who remain bound to us by the vote, is to give away not power but civic activity, not accountability but civic responsibility, not our secondary rights against government but our primary right to govern. (Barber, 1984, pp. xiv–xv)—

and a belief in the power of participatory democracy—

The strong form of democracy is the only form that is genuinely and completely democratic. It may also be the only one capable of preserving and advancing the political form of human freedom in a modern world that grows ever more hostile to traditional liberal democracy. (Barber, 1984, p. 148)

The formulation of proposals for the restructuring of school governance in truly democratic directions is a necessary step in the ongoing struggle for a democratic and just way of life. (Snauwaert, 1993, pp. 104–105)

Given the breakdown of representative democracy and absent the growth of vital citizen control, critics see the emergence of either (1) the grubby hand of the market (Martin, 1993)—and with it an “eroding [of] the sense of community in contemporary society and [an] intensifying of the individualistic ethic of our time” (Kolderie, 1991, p. 257)—or (2) “dangerous new variants of neodemocracy—the politics of special interest [and] the politics of neopopulist fascism” (Barber, 1984, p. xiii).

As Sarason (1995) and others note, reengineering educational governance on the basis of citizen control places real constraints on government and professionals. For example, while most analysts conveniently ignore the fact, Snauwaert (1993) is correct when he asserts that “a school-based governance system and state-formulated accountability measures are inherently contradictory” (p. 98). And what holds for state accountability systems holds for professional and state initiatives in the areas of standards, curriculum, criteria for employment, and so forth. In short, citizen control throws a noticeable kink in the existing state-professional governance machinery.


It is exactly this question of competence which produces the dilemma of the expert in school governance. Dahl argues persuasively about the value of what he calls the “criterion of competence.” Some decisions should not be made democratically. (Zeigler et al., 1974, p. 248)

Reforms which propose to “empower teachers” or “replace hierarchical structures with peer group control” or accord “professional autonomy” to teachers are ludicrous intellectually but devastating in their political and policy consequences. Such proposals are tantamount to prescribing the germs to cure the disease. (Lieberman, 1988, p. 9)

Professional control is predicated upon the belief that the governance bus should be directed and driven by those with expertise in education, a “thoroughly defensible position” according to Eliot (1969, p. 7). As various analysts have noted, professional control spotlights the technical dimensions of schooling and, as seen in Table 1, posits expert knowledge as the major source of influence. Zeigler and his colleagues (1974) remind us that “the notion of expertise, the relegation of as many questions as possible to the level of a technical problem, is a very pervasive political philosophy” (pp. 247–248) in society in general and in education in particular.

Over the last century, there has been a bounty of scholarship exposing the inequitable distribution of control in schooling, with professional educators (along with state actors) firmly ensconced at the wheel. As Sarason (1995) has concluded, while educators have always acknowledged the legitimate rights of parents in some generalized form, that has never meant to educators that:

[Parents’] interest should be formally accompanied by the power to influence how schools and classrooms are structured and run, the choice of curriculum, selection of teachers and other personnel, and so forth. Those matters were off-limits; they were the concern and responsibility of the professional educators. (p. 20)

Eliot (1969) captures the essence of the idea in its most unalluring form when he concludes that for many educators, “schools are the special province of the professionals, the voters being a necessary evil who must be reckoned with because they provide the money” (pp. 4–5).

We reported earlier that state control of education is not inevitable. Neither is professional expertise sacrosanct. Indeed, a number of critics have concluded that “expertise cannot be legitimately used as the overriding criteria for deciding broad policy issues that affect one’s children” (Snauwaert, 1993, p. 95)—nor, we might add, more basic decisions about the core technology of schools.


As noted in Table 1, community control is grounded in perspectives from religion. It is based on neither regulation nor expert knowledge but on shared values. In Barber’s (1984) terms, “involvement, commitment, obligation, and service—common deliberation, common decision, and common work—are its hallmarks” (p. 133). The “principle of community” (Snauwaert, 1993, p. 70) is dominant. While schools remain nested in the larger structure of society and the legitimacy of external interests is acknowledged, the basic understanding of public education is radically altered under community control.

Goods and services can be provided by any of three mechanisms—government, markets, or voluntary associations. The analysis to this point has featured the first mechanism. Community control on the other hand is anchored in voluntary association. Since voluntary association is the least emphasized of the three delivery mechanisms, our knowledge of this type of control is not particularly well-developed. What seems to be critical to voluntary mechanisms are a tight consensus on dominant values and mission and the willingness of communities “to exercise political clout to extract political concessions and to declare, by steps and degrees, independence from traditional forms of government” (Fitzgerald, 1988, p. 51).

In the noneducational world, neighborhood development organizations (NDOs) are the best example of community control. Fitzgerald (1988), Gormley (1991), and Savas (1987) all have chronicled initiatives in which functions provided by government, such as caring for public lands and managing public housing projects, have been taken over by NDOs. In education, associations of home-schooled families represent a particularly good example of voluntary associations. Also, while most reviewers see charter schools positioned on a market fulcrum, our own analysis leads us to conclude that control in many of these institutions has more to do with community than with the market.


That regulation which the market imposes in economic activity is superior to any regulation that rulers can devise and operate by law. (Pirie, 1988, p. 10)

Idealization of the market’s invisible hand has served to conceal the grubbier ones directing it. (Martin, 1993, p. 6)

All of the control strategies described herein, even efforts to redefine state control, draw strength from stinging reviews of existing governance structures. In particular, they rely on devastating attacks on the bureaucratic model of control. Where they part company is in the solution strategies that they craft to address existing problems. One of the most controversial lines of governance redesign builds its reform platform on the foundation of consumer control. Solutions are rooted not in the political sphere but in the economic domain. Free-market dynamics are highlighted. As with some of the other control strategies, proponents stress direct participation—but not by individuals acting as citizens or members of communities, but as consumers. While alternately lambasted by critics and praised by supporters, it is clear that advocates of market control mechanisms have made it onto the governance bus. Comprehensive efforts to rebuild the control infrastructure of twenty-first-century schools will need to address this fact.

In an earlier section, we spent considerable space exploring criticism of existing governance arrangements, especially broadsides on the public delivery of goods and services. While it is unnecessary to retell that story here, we should reemphasize that appeals to market control owe much to critical reviews of nonmarket sources of influence. The luster of markets is also brightened by claims of benefits accruing from this form of control. While these claims are heavily contested, comprehensive analysis supports the position that markets are likely to increase efficiency while enhancing quality.3

One set of initiatives around economic control focuses on introducing “market-like” forces into a system. School choice within the public sector fits nicely here. Real market control requires shifting either funding or provision of services—or both—from the public to the private domain. The most popular market-control strategies are those such as contracting out and vouchers that maintain public financing but take delivery out of the hands of public employees.


Many astute observers of education governance as it is currently practiced believe that radical change in public education governance is imperative. (Danzberger, 1992, p. 89)

New bundles of ideas are emerging to challenge governance perspectives that have dominated education for the last 75 years. One of the key elements involves a recalibration of the locus of control based on what Ross (1988) describes as “a review and reconsideration of the division of existing responsibilities and functions” (p. 2) among levels of government. Originally called “democratic localism” (p. 305) by Katz (1971), it has more recently come to be known simply as localization or, more commonly, decentralization. However it is labeled, it represents a backlash against “the thorough triumph of a centralized and bureaucratic form of educational organization” (p. 305) and governance and an antidote for the feeling that “America has lost its way in education because America has disenfranchised individual local schools” (Guthrie, 1997, p. 34).

A second ideological foundation can best be thought of as a recasting of democracy, a replacement of representative governance with more populist conceptions, especially what Cronin (1989) describes as direct democracy. While we use the term more broadly than does Cronin, our conception shares with his a grounding in: (1) the falling fortunes of representative democracy, (2) a “growing distrust of legislative bodies . . . [and] a growing suspicion that privileged interests exert far greater influence on the typical politician than does the common voter” (p. 4), and (3) recognition of the claims of its advocates that greater direct voice will produce important benefits for society—that it “could enrich citizenship and replace distrust of government with respect and healthy participation” (p. 48).

A third foundation encompasses a rebalancing of the governance equation in favor of lay citizens while diminishing the power of the state and (in some ways) educational professionals. This line of ideas emphasizes parental empowerment by recognizing the “historic rights of parents in the education of their children” (Gottfried, 1993, p. 109). It is, at times, buttressed by a strong strand of anti-professionalism that subordinates “both efficiency and organizational rationality to an emphasis on responsiveness, close public [citizen] control, and local involvement” (Katz, 1971, p. 306).

The ideology of choice is a fourth pillar that will likely support the rebuilt edifice of school governance (Bauman, 1996). Sharing a good deal of space with the concepts of localism, direct democracy, and lay control, choice is designed to “deregulate the demand side of the education market” (Beers & Ellig, 1994, p. 35) and to “enable parents to become more effectively involved in the way the school is run” (Hakim, Seidenstat, & Bowman, 1994, p. 13). It means that “schools would be forced to attend to student needs and parent preferences rather than to the requirements of a centralized bureaucracy” (Hill, 1994, p. 76).

Finally, it seems likely that something that might best be thought of as democratic professionalism will form a central part of the infrastructure of school governance in the post-industrial world. What this means is the gradual decline of control by elite professionals—by professional managers and more recently by teacher unions—that characterized governance in the industrial era of schooling. While schools in the industrial era have been heavily controlled by professionals, they have not provided a role for the average teacher in governance. Indeed, under elite democracy and managerial centralization that defined school governance for the past century, teachers were explicitly denied influence. As Snauwaert (1993) notes:

In accordance with the managerial and social philosophy of scientific management and elite democracy, decision-making power was centralized in the hands of an “expert” planner, the superintendent. Educational policy would be determined by the superintendent and his assistants, and the teachers would become mechanized implementors with no decision-making power. (p. 26)

This view of front line workers is inconsistent with both human capitalism and emerging portraits of post-industrial schooling. Not surprisingly, therefore, the call for an enhanced voice for teachers is a central element in much of the current reform debate. It is also likely to become a key pillar in school governance for tomorrow’s schools.


Determining a satisfactory pattern of authority allocation is a continuing problem, changing along with priorities placed on fundamental social values. (Swanson, 1989, p. 277)

In regard to school governance the seeds of revolutionary actions are beginning to sprout. (Sarason, 1995, p. 122)

The central thesis of this work on school governance is that the landscape of educational control is being reshaped. For nearly 100 years, governance has been the province primarily of government agents and professional educators, often working together. In this paper, we argued that, similar to major shifts underway in the core technology of the educational industry and in the organizational arrangements that shape schooling, the institutional dimension of schooling is also undergoing important alterations. In particular, we showed that the bedrock that has supported the pillars of state-professional control is softening and has exposed some of the cracks that are appearing in the columns themselves. We argued that with lessening interest in the democratic welfare state, notions of government and professional control—and appeals to regulation and expert knowledge—have less saliency than they enjoyed in the past. Buttressed by critiques of extant systems of control and appeals to putative benefits of alternative systems, especially market-grounded and citizen-anchored models, we claimed that a new governance algorithm may be emerging—one that privileges an array of control mechanisms and pushes an alternative bundle of ideas about governance onto center stage.

Our purpose was not to classify or evaluate the array of reform initiatives beginning to appear on the recontoured landscape of educational governance. Rather, our objective was to help shape understanding of the forces at play in the reshaping process. In the end, our aim was to provide information to help ground discussions about changing vistas in this area and to provide some clues about important influences that will be at play as governance takes shape in the schools of the twenty-first century.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 102 Number 1, 2000, p. 57-84
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10441, Date Accessed: 10/20/2021 9:17:49 PM

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