During the past 40 years, the locus of school district control has gradually shifted from a tradition of home rule or local control to state control. Control over the decisions governing such areas as funding, budgeting, human resources, standards, capital projects, operations, curriculum and assessment that were once the sole province of local boards of education has been superseded largely by the state. Increased state control has reversed the traditional operating philosophy of school systems that was based on limiting the power of any centralized remote governmental entity could exert over local school districts. Historically, Americans wanted school decision making to be as close as possible to those citizens who were most affected. School district residents realized that by being able to control what and how their children were taught as well as how and who administered and governed their schools plus how their taxes were used that they were able to enjoy the maximum of democratic accountability.
The rising power of the state (Fusarelli and Cooper, 2009) grew from the states’ increasing domination of school finance and, therefore, policy making because of the strings the states attached to funding. Legal challenges to funding inequities and disparities led to court decisions such as Serrano v. Priest establishing financial neutrality as the basis for school funding. States remedied the disparities among districts with the infusion of incremental state funds and regulation. Subsequent rulings focused on adequacy and required state governments to provide resources to disadvantaged districts such that the provision of education adequately met their constitutional requirements. New Jersey’s state constitution was deemed to go even further because of its provisions guaranteeing a thorough and efficient education or a “T&E” education as it became known and manifested in the Abbott v. Burke court decision.
The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) accelerated the trend toward adequacy with its national educational standards. Under NCLB, the federal government holds states and school districts accountable for improving performance. As a result, states are forced to define an adequate level of student and school achievement as well as the level of financial resources that would be constitutionally adequate. NCLB, therefore, marked a pronounced policy making shift to an accountability model within which the allocation of school district financial and human resources was made largely at the state rather than the local level largely according to federal guidelines.
But the consequences of centralizing most of the control over the allocation of a school district’s financial and human resources at the state level gave rise to many unintended obstacles to improving accountability. Chief among them was the contradictory challenge of trying to hold local school districts accountable to standards made remotely at the state level that did not reflect and often conflicted with unique local educational requirements and priorities. As a result, when states imposed a one-size-fits-all approach to local school district resource allocation, state funds were not used as efficiently as they could have been. School systems would be more accountable if decision making over financial and human resources was made at the local district level.
A local school district can improve student and school performance best when the district is empowered to allocate its financial and human resources according to its educational plan rather than being required to follow one-size-fits-all state directives. The local school district would have all the tools it would need to hold schools and students accountable because it could make real time decisions based on specific measurable performance goals for each school and student. The local school district is the most qualified to continually calibrate local performance goals because only the local school district can combine a keen understanding of local educational necessities with the timely and specific assessment of individual school and student achievement. State control is too remote which causes not only inappropriate delays but also decisions that tend to be inconsistent with the district’s unique educational plan.
State control especially over a district’s financial and human resource use creates barriers for achieving accountability. When a local school district is limited by the state’s one-size-fits-all approach, it is prevented from developing more innovative approaches to accountability. In order for local school districts to innovate, they must be empowered to deploy more effective approaches for increasing accountability that are best suited to local needs. Improving accountability, therefore, requires the adaptation of new models for the control structure of local public schools that are largely free of state control.
In response to the shortcomings of state dominated local school systems, communities need greater local control over their schools so that they can benefit from increased accountability. Because a local school district’s control structure affects how all of the school system’s stakeholders combine to produce a quality education, school districts nationwide are searching for the most appropriate local control structure model that will provide the highest level of accountability. As a result, local school districts are increasingly adapting a local control structure that provides the maximum accountability possible according to their unique characteristics. What matters most in terms of maximizing accountability is that a school district employs the model that fosters the greatest public support for the maximum public funding of its public schools.
Fusarelli, B. C., & Cooper, B. S., Editors. (2009). The Rising State: How State Power is Transforming our Nation’s Schools, first edition, SUNY Press.