Sweeping Decentralization of Educational Decision-Making Authority: Lessons from England and New Zealand

By Williams, Richard C.; Harold, Barbara et al. | Phi Delta Kappan, April 1997 | Go to article overview

Sweeping Decentralization of Educational Decision-Making Authority: Lessons from England and New Zealand


Williams, Richard C., Harold, Barbara, Robertson, Jan, Southworth, Geoff, Phi Delta Kappan


The experience with decentralization in New Zealand and England illustrates that the goals of local control and accountability might be more elusive than was initially envisioned by those who designed the system, the authors suggest.

Among the solutions being offered to improve the quality of America's public schools is decentralizing decision-making authority from state educational agencies and school districts to local school sites.' The shift is being recommended in the belief that organizations will perform better if those who must implement and are affected by programs and decisions have a greater say in decision making. This development parallels a similar movement in the private sector.(2)

The degree of decentralization varies among states and school districts, ranging from slightly increasing the percentage of district funds allocated to local schools for discretionary spending, to decentralizing decision making to the school principal, to establishing site-based councils that advise the principal - who retains ultimate authority for decisions. These approaches - which Priscilla Wohlstetter and Allan Odden refer to as administrative decentralization and principal control(3) - do not fundamentally change professional and school board control. We refer to them as limited models of decentralization.

The American education system, when compared to many other national systems, is already quite decentralized. The main responsibility for education rests with the states, which, in turn, have vested extensive decision-making responsibilities in local school boards. However, with the exception of a few places such as Chicago, the American system has only the trappings of true decentralization.(4) In reality, the school board and central administration retain ultimate authority over the most important decisions.

Some advocates argue that we need to decentralize further, to the local school site, if we are to garner the benefits that such an approach can provide. They urge us to adopt a system that would accomplish some or all of the following objectives:

* Devolve the ultimate responsibility for a wide range of decisions from the school board and central administration to the school-site council.

* Change site-council membership so that it consists of a majority of parents and community members and a small minority of teachers and administrators.

* Change the role of the school board and the state to assisting local site councils in implementing their own programs and decisions.

* Allow site councils greater freedom to purchase goods or obtain services for the school from government agencies and private vendors.(5)

For our purposes here, we define such changes as a sweeping decentralization of decision making. Rather than tinkering with the system by decentralizing a few decisions to professionally controlled councils, sweeping decentralization represents a fundamental shift in the decision-making structure of the school system.

We might well ask some questions. What would happen if a centralized system moved in this direction? Would it result in chaos or more efficiency? Would client interests be better served? What effect would it have on teachers and administrators? Would citizens and parents be capable of providing effective leadership? Two national education systems, England and New Zealand, have implemented just such a sweeping system, and a look at some of their experiences provides some insights into decentralization's likely effect on school sites in the U.S.

We will briefly describe the reforms that have been implemented in these two countries, identify and discuss some common challenges that they have faced when moving in this direction, and discuss lessons that American reformers might learn from these experiences.

New Zealand

During a century of education with a strongly centralized administrative structure, there had been little real change in New Zealand's system. …

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