The State-Local Partnership in Education
The terms of the partnership that governs American public education are currently undergoing their most rapid and profound transformation in over seventy years. The beginning of this century saw the emergence of a system administered by professional educators accountable in varying degrees to predominantly upper-middle-class community representatives composing school boards. The express purpose of the reformers who created the school boards was to cut them off from powerful political constituencies. As the school districts grew dramatically in size and the American population became increasingly mobile, the links between the school boards and their power bases became still more tenuous. When dissatisfaction with the schools brought the federal government, the states, education professionals, and a variety of interest groups and policy networks into the education policymaking arena, the school boards proved ill-equipped to assert their traditional authority.
With the growing inability of school boards to translate public preferences into public policy, we are seeing more and more programs initiated by the states that bypass and weaken school boards. The continuing need to provide parents with some form of leverage, both to protect their rights and to enlist them in the enterprise of education, suggests that if school boards cannot provide an adequate channel of local, and particularly parental, input, it will be necessary to develop other means of doing so. Whatever that means is, be it school-based management, parental choice, or some other mechanism, it will require a renegotiation of the terms of the state-local partnership that evolved during this century. Because it is likely to be a time of transition, the current period is an excellent time to take stock of the history of the state-local partnership, describe its present functioning, and identify a number of developments in education governance that are shaping the contours of a new partnership.