Academic journal article Planning and Changing

When School Advisory Councils Decide: Spending Choices for School Improvement

Academic journal article Planning and Changing

When School Advisory Councils Decide: Spending Choices for School Improvement

Article excerpt

Many state-level school reform efforts have focused on creating governance structures that provide stakeholders with greater access to and influence over decisions about schooling. Parent and community involvement in decision making is widely held as an essential component of successful school improvement (Leithwood & Menzies, 1998). State and local policies are based on engaging local stakeholders in partnership for changing schools to meet the needs of the communities they serve. The rationale for these reforms has been to empower school professionals and to position parents to act as partners with educators in the schooling of their children.

Teachers and principals, the people closest to the classroom, would be the best decision makers for the schools because they have the most information about the school (Murphy & Beck, 1995). In theory, by giving school stakeholders more discretion over resources they would be more likely to improve the responsiveness and productivity of the instructional program. However, some studies (Hess, 1996; Malen & Ogawa, 1988) question the readiness of administrators, teachers, and parents to participate in school-based decision-making processes with the resultant shifts in authority, power, and responsibility. At the same time, other authors characterize the involvement of parents in the governance structure of public education as a struggle for control:

From advisor to equal partner, from passive listener to decision maker-indeed, from fundraiser to hell-raiser-the role of parents in schools is changing. Parents are becoming more vocal about being involved in education decision making. The family is becoming important as an instructional partner. And marketbased education initiatives, such as charter schools and voucher programs, are changing parents from citizens to customers. (Fege, 2000, p. 39)

In any case, when people engage in shared decision making, they bring to the process their own interests and the interests of constituents they may represent.

Much of the work of school governance has been assigned to school-site councils comprising parent, business, student, teacher, and administrative representatives of the local school community. Establishment of school-site councils has been the centerpiece of school reform agendas of State Departments of Education since the 1990s (Leithwood & Menzies, 1998). Citizen participation in school advisory councils has been widely legislated as a mechanism for increased accountability to the parents and community at large, along with strengthening community support for their schools (Wohlstetter & Mohrman, 1993). It is supposed that allowing school advisory councils to analyze problems, consider the best methods, and monitor performance benefits the organization. Councils can be structures that invite genuine stakeholder participation allowing those closest to the situation to respond to the unique needs of the school.

The debate on school governance arrangements rests with whether the reforms signal a real shift in power. Recommendations emerging from this debate revolve around council structures. School advisory councils usually assume one of three forms: administrative control in which the principal is the primary decision maker; professional control where teachers are primary decision makers; and commumty control where school governance is dominated by parents and community members (Murphy & Beck, 1995). Actual implementation of these models, however, has often failed to alter the traditional decision-making patterns in schools (Malen & Ogawa, 1988). School principals can limit issues debated by councils, control information, and restrict decision-making influence of parents making school councils little more than "rubber stamps" for decisions made by principals (Hess, 1996). Strategies for addressing these obstacles have elicited legislative clarification of the council membership and tasks, and provision of expanded authority and some budgetary control. …

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