The Pitfalls of Political Decentralization and Proposals for Reform: The Case of New York City Public Schools

Article excerpt

A powerful movement toward government devolution is underway in the nation. Frustrated with the limitations and inefficiencies of big bureaucracy, a growing chorus of reformers from different ideological backgrounds calls for the loosening of bureaucratic constraints. Reformers want states and localities to have more control over their affairs and front-line workers to be empowered (Dubnick, 1994).

As devolution proposals gain momentum, reformers should consider New York City's 26-year experience with public school decentralization. Although there are differences between contemporary devolution proposals and New York's school decentralization (which emerged during the racial turmoil of the civil rights era), there are also similarities. Both desire to bring government closer to local constituents. Both propose to increase local officials' discretion over hiring and other functions. Both assume that smaller government will spur greater citizen involvement and that enhanced discretion will unleash employees' creativity to better serve the community.

The passage of New York's school decentralization law in 1969 marked one of the nation's most ambitious experiments in community government: a radical form of political decentralization that generally involves transferring decision-making authority from bureaucracies to locally elected lay boards (LaNoue and Smith, 1973). The idea of community control, which initially found form in federally funded antipoverty programs that sprang up in the nation's cities in the mid-1960s, was to give inner-city minorities influence over remote, unresponsive bureaucracies staffed largely by whites (Yates, 1973). The hope was that government would be forced to be accountable. States and cities soon followed suit, decentralizing a variety of programs. Foremost among them were the public schools.

An important, unintended consequence of political decentralization was corruption. With vast reservoirs of jobs and money, community programs soon became centers for power and patronage, harking back to Tammany Hall (see, e.g., Reeves, Collier, Phallon, and Severo, 1974). The pitfalls of community control are illustrated by New York's experience with school decentralization, where program vulnerabilities in the context of politicized, often poor, urban communities led to unintended widespread and systematic corruption (Segal, 1995). A majority of the city's 32 school boards carved their districts into fiefdoms where jobs were doled out to loyal campaign workers, lovers, and family or sold for cash.

The ideological and historical context out of which school decentralization arose in New York created an environment hospitable to corruption. Community control was viewed not merely as a means to an end, but an end in itself. Politically empowering the poor was intended not only to force government to address their needs, but also to give them the political skills and self-esteem to enable them to integrate into mainstream society (Altshuler, 1970). In the school decentralization context, political goals such as ethnic succession and averting a racial crisis were the legislation's immediate aim. Improving pupil competency was only a long-range goal (State Charter Revision Commission, 1974, 32-46). This is only a step away from a world where power is the only goal, and long-term educational goals are lost in the tumultuous fray of local politics.

A closer look at what happened in New York shows structural vulnerabilities in decentralization that might occur anywhere if proper safeguards are not in place. Despite the examination of decentralization's pitfalls, it is not the intention of this analysis to advocate centralization, which has its own hazards.

Decentralization Hopes and Aspirations

Decentralization followed over a decade of turbulence in which minority school enrollment grew dramatically, citywide reading scores plunged, and dropout rates rose. …