Home Articles Reader Opinion Editorial Book Reviews Discussion Writers Guide About TCRecord
transparent 13

Who’s In Charge Here?: The Tangled Web of School Governance and Policy

reviewed by David T. Conley - November 29, 2006

coverTitle: Who’s In Charge Here?: The Tangled Web of School Governance and Policy
Author(s): Noel Epstein (Ed.)
Publisher: Brookings Institution, Washington D.C.
ISBN: 0815724713 , Pages: 303, Year: 2006
Search for book at Amazon.com

The aptly named Who’s In Charge Here? is one of several recent publications that explore what the book’s subtitle describes as “the tangled web of school governance and policy” in U.S. public education (see Conley, 2003; Venezia, Callan, Finney, Kirst, & Usdan, 2005; and Cross, 2006). This edited volume contains chapters by a number of leading thinkers on issues of governance and policy, including Michael Kirst, James Ryan, Paul Hill, Larry Cuban, Susan Fuhrman, Linda Darling-Hammond, Gary Sykes, and Henry Levin. These contributors offer a multi-faceted analysis of a complex phenomenon: the evolution of the system for governing public schools in the United States.

Explaining the jumbled and haphazard arrangements Americans have put in place to govern their schools is not a task for the faint of heart. Editor Noel Epstein, a former education editor for the Washington Post, frames the major issues that the uninitiated must understand to make sense out of the rapid evolution—some would say revolution—in governance that is occurring at the federal, state, and local levels. He makes clear early on something that is evident but not widely acknowledged by policymakers in particular: that control over education policy has been centralizing at the state and federal levels at an accelerating rate over the past 30-plus years. Epstein points out that responsibility for schools has always resided at the state level, and that local districts are creatures of the state. In this sense, states are not necessarily asserting, but rather reasserting, their control over education.

The recent dramatic increase in federal involvement is something new altogether and quite controversial. University of Virginia School of Law professor James Ryan lays to rest the notion that the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution somehow reserves governance of schools to the state. This chapter does an excellent job of delineating the several sources within the Constitution upon which the federal government legitimizes its interventions into education policy at all levels.

A larger point to consider is the role of the local school district. Has it outlived its usefulness? Should it survive? If so, what purposes should it serve? Michael Kirst and Paul Hill explore this issue from differing vantage points. Kirst outlines the virtues of local district governance, but suggests that it will be difficult to impossible to reverse the centralization trend. Hill introduces and explains the notions of “subsidiarity” and comparative advantage to argue that decisions should be made at the level closest to those affected by the decision and by those best able to make the decisions. While Kirst favors local decision making as the best means to govern schools, Hill advocates citizen involvement through new educational structures such as charter schools that are paired with state-level educational standards to provide an accountability framework.

Larry Cuban and Susan Fuhrman come down on somewhat differing sides regarding the ability of government to centralize and rationalize education policy to serve social goals. Cuban points out that much of the centralization is being driven by economic concerns, but that schools are not at all well positioned to become “employment boot camps,” and that local districts are the place where improvements must, in the final analysis, take place. Fuhrman contends that the limited capacity and will of the federal government to implement its programs and the resulting appropriation of federal initiatives by local school districts ultimately limits the effect of state and federal education policy on schools. Rather than legislating learning, the federal role might better focus on increasing the investment in educator professional development and system capacity to meet the needs of all students.

Linda Darling-Hammond and Gary Sykes take the position that the federal government can and should intervene in particular areas, specifically to improve the number of highly qualified teachers in urban schools. Achievement of federal education goals, from their vantage point, is contingent, ultimately, on some sort of federal teacher-supply program.

Henry Levin examines whether school choice may be the answer. Will charter schools and vouchers save the day? Will they eliminate the need for educational governance once and for all? The evidence to date, according to Levin, is not encouraging. The net effect of federal and state education reform policy may be driving schools toward greater similarity and not to unique adaptation and differences based on student need and community preference.

Noel Epstein concludes with an analysis of the ultimate level of governance—the family. He considers the complex and intertwined set of dependencies between and among families, schools, and local and state government, and concludes that mayors and governors need to have the cross-agency authority to develop and coordinate programs that support youth and family.

The book does an excellent job of outlining the issues and their complexity, but don’t read it with the idea that the question posed in the title will be answered definitively. The conclusion the reader reaches is that no one and everyone is in charge of American public education. The top scholars in this area agree only that governance is complex and confusing. And while some advocate a particular or preferred approach, most primarily describe the problems.

The current governance system is the artifact of several hundred years of evolution in both the structure and purpose of education in the United States. This has been an accretive process, one in which new structures are grafted on top of old ones, without removing the previous structures. Functionality in the U.S. system has never been spelled out unambiguously, and is often shared across levels. Textbook selection is only one example of an important policy area that is handled differently from state to state and, within states, from district to district. Sometimes, different schools in the same district even have very different policies and structures in place to address this important task.

The net effect of this diffusion of power is a governance system that is difficult for the uninitiated to understand and unwieldy to manage, even by those centrally involved in it. Some would argue that this is a good thing, that the very complexity and unresponsiveness of the educational governance system helps guard it against precipitous changes. Others assert that schools must be able to adapt rapidly to changes in the society, economy, and their immediate student populations and communities.

Whether the current evolution of governance in U.S. education will help schools function more effectively, efficiently, and equitably is yet to be seen. What is clear is that no one is clearly in charge of the process and that the tensions among governance levels that have been increasing in the past few decades are likely to persist into the foreseeable future. While a fundamental reinvention of educational governance is unlikely, the continued evolution of the structure and purposes of education is inevitable. Changes in governance will likely follow, not precipitate, the redesign of American education that many have predicted for many years now.

The degree to which this is viewed as a good thing or not depends largely on one’s perspective in relation to the system and one’s own personal value system. Clearly, there is no one right answer or solution to the governance dilemma. Will the American tendency to innovate eventually lead to solutions that break schools free from the overburden of 200 years of governance structures, or will the entire system collapse upon its own weight before dramatic changes in governance occur? This book does not provide a definitive answer, but it does provide greater insight into the issues underlying this question.


Conley, D. T. (2003). Who governs our schools? Changing roles and responsibilities. New York: Teachers College Press.

Cross, C. (2006). Political education: National policy comes of age. New York: Teachers College Press.

Venezia, A., Callan, P. M., Finney, J. E., Kirst, M. W., & Usdan, M. D. (2005). The governance divide: A report on a four-state study on improving college readiness and success (No. 05-3). San Jose, California: National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 29, 2006
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12859, Date Accessed: 1/20/2022 12:23:17 AM

Purchase Reprint Rights for this article or review
Article Tools
Related Articles

Related Discussion
Post a Comment | Read All

About the Author
  • David Conley
    University of Oregon
    E-mail Author
    DAVID CONLEY is Professor of Educational Policy and Leadership and founder and director of the Center for Educational Policy Research at the University of Oregon. He conducts research on a range of policy issues related to educational governance and systems articulation. His current research emphasizes high school-college transition. His most recent book, College Knowledge: What It Really Takes for Students to Succeed and What We Can Do to Get Them Ready, summarizes research he conducted to identify the knowledge and skills necessary for college success.
Member Center
In Print
This Month's Issue