How to Decentralize
The problems of governance structure and budgeting described by Jon Fullerton and William Ouchi ("Mounting Debt" and "Academic Freedom," Forum, Winter 2004) are not unique to education. The same problems of overcentralization plague the management of all government enterprises--from policing to transportation to environmental protection.
The constraints placed on public employees most often emerge in response to some specific error (perceived or real) by an employee--an error that we want to ensure never happens again. If one school principal spends public funds on pencils that the public or public officials believe would have been better spent on chalk, we quickly require all principals to spend a specific allocation of funds on chalk. If one teacher uses a curriculum that we believe was ineffective or inappropriate, we quickly demand that all teachers use a required curriculum.
Consequently, to the recommendations offered by Fullerton and Ouchi, let me suggest an additional one: Minimize the potential for scandals and other embarrassments that can create pressures to recentralize authority.
To do this, those who would implement these decentralizing reforms should first seek to explicitly identify the potential indiscretions that are most likely to produce a scandal. They will miss some, of course. But they ought to be able to identify the high-probability, big-consequence errors--the mistakes that when exposed by an inspector general, candidate for office, or crusading journalist are most likely to engender a crippling new centralizing requirement. …