Cover: Reinventing Public Education

Reinventing Public Education

Published 1995

by Paul T. Hill


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Why has a decade of work on school reform produced so little? New programs, curricula, and accountability schemes, site-based management, and more money all appear to have little effect. Why is this so?

School governance is at least part of the answer. The very term is enough to make the eyes glaze over. It conjures up images of school boards meeting until midnight to decide whether to reroute a school bus, of administrators intent on measuring to the minute how long the school day should be, of bean counters tracking every dollar to its source, and of officials dedicated to upholding the letter of the law whatever its spirit.

As the adage holds, "The devil is in the details." The details of governance—how public officials supervise a school, how much discretion teachers and principals have, and how decisions are made about curriculum, teaching methods, student attendance, graduation requirements, hiring, and quality control—determine whether schools can change and improve. Unless new and better governance arrangements can be developed, the decade-long effort to reform American public education is doomed to failure.

Two theses are central to this report. First, the seeds of today's disappointments were sown when education reformers of the 19th century defined a public school as an institution financed, owned, and managed by a local agency of government. Second, public management of education has created a governance system divorced from public needs and democratic change, a system incapable of renewing itself.

American public schools have become government institutions, not community enterprises dedicated to the raising of children. They are buffeted by decisions made in the political arena, distracted from their instructional and nurturing missions by conflicts among adults, and hamstrung by regulations enacted in efforts to improve them. Schools may or may not need more money, better curricula, and better buildings. What is clear is that they now fail to make full use of the funds, equipment, and human talents already available to them.

Americans know what an effective school is, but we are unable to create them in great numbers. In surveys and focus groups across the country, people say they want schools in which

  • Teachers know their material and present it well.
  • Each child is led to learn and accomplish as much as he or she can.
  • Students who fall behind or encounter problems get help; the school will not give up on a student.
  • Children understand the importance of what they are taught.
  • Parents know what their children are experiencing in school and why, and know that the staff consider parents to be partners, not adversaries.
  • Adults in the school form personal relationships with children and assume responsibility for how well every child learns.
  • Adults set good examples of fairness, honesty, and generosity.

Regrettably, the system of rules, supervision, and accountability by which we govern public education makes it difficult for schools to develop and sustain these characteristics. There are public schools with these qualities, but they almost always exist outside the mainstream and are tolerated as rare and deviant cases, not as models to be encouraged or emulated. The goal of governance reform is to build a system in which such schools are commonplace, not rare.

To date, all the efforts to reform governance of public education have been piecemeal. Voucher plans define how parents obtain the financial resources to demand better public schools, but not how public or private agencies will provide better schools. Charter schools reduce the burden of regulation on a few schools, but leave the vast majority under the existing governance system. Site-based management changes decisionmaking at the school level, but does nothing to change the mission and powers of the central office and little to minimize federal and state regulations, categorical program requirements, and union contract prohibitions. School board reformers urge an end to micromanagement, but they do not relieve board members of the need to resolve complaints and conflicts by making new policies that constrain all schools. "Systemic" reforms try to "align" the different parts of public education via mandated goals, tests, curriculum frameworks, and teacher certification methods, but do nothing to eliminate the political and contractual constraints that create fragmented, unresponsive schools.

None of these proposals offers a complete alternative to the existing governance system. They leave intact the core of the existing system: the commitment to governing public schools via politically negotiated rules that apply to all schools. Because most of the reforms now openly discussed in public forums can be gradually eroded by the creation of new rules, they are more likely to be transformed by the existing education governance system than to transform it.

The Goal of This Report

The goal of this report is to formulate a true alternative to the current form of governance for public education. Based on studies of local educational reform efforts and of governance in other large decentralized service organizations, the report concludes that there is a real alternative. Unlike the current system, in which schools are both funded and operated by a government agency, the alternative allows schools to be operated by a variety of public and private organizations, based on school-specific contracts that would define each school's mission, guarantee public funding, and establish standards and procedures for accountability.

Contracting: A New Way of Governing Public Schools

Contracting builds on the charter schools movement (see Kolderie 1992; Nathan 1989), which permits groups to run publicly funded schools without following all the public school system's rules. Under a contracting system, every school would have a charter. A school board would not directly run schools, but would contract with independent organizations to run them. A local public school system would manage many different contracts, some for high schools and some for grade schools, some for highly distinctive schools (e.g., Montessori grade schools and high schools focused on health careers, great books, multicultural curricula, etc.) and others for more conventional schools. Every school's contract would specify the amounts of public funds it would receive, the type of instructional program it would provide, and the student outcomes it expects to produce.

The contract terms and the basic state licensing and student graduation requirements that now apply to all private schools would comprise the sole and entire method of public control over a school's curriculum and teaching methods. Contracting would require school boards to make educational decisions on a school-by-school basis, rather than by making policies that constrain all schools. In considering a particular contract, the school board need not ask whether a school concept is right for all or most of the students in the district, or whether some stakeholder groups would dislike a particular school. All the board would need to ask is whether there is a need for a particular school and whether the people proposing to run it have plausible credentials for doing so.

Public officials would retain ultimate responsibility for school quality. They could replace a contractor that failed to deliver, or force substantial quality improvements if performance in its schools fell below acceptable levels. A local school board could also continually "prune" its portfolio of contractors. When contracts came up for renewal, providers whose schools fell below some set level of performance could be eliminated from consideration. Contracting allows something that is not possible in public education today: unrelenting attention to the quality of instruction and learning in the lowest-performing schools.

Some contract schools could be run by the staff and parents of existing successful schools: neighborhood schools with good records of serving their students and communities, and magnet schools with well-defined programs and histories of success with average, as well as exceptional, students. Other school contracts could be established through the issuance of public requests for proposals, and still others might be negotiated directly with community groups or educational institutions that offer to run one or more schools.

The core purpose of contracting is to create schools that have clear missions and definite strategies for motivating students and delivering instruction. A school's contract would specify the goals it would seek and the methods it would use. A potential contractor could propose to establish a school with particular goals and methods. A local school board could also request proposals for a school that meets a defined need (e.g., emphasizing apprenticeship-style education) or an organized demand (e.g., emphasizing high academic standards and African culture and history).

Teachers would work for individual schools—as owner-operators, members of cooperatives, partners in a professional organization, or employees. Some teachers might form their own contracting organizations, and find teachers via their own professional networks. Contractors could also hire teachers through the local teacher union, which might operate as a guild hiring hall, brokering teachers into schools that fit them and suggesting additional training for teachers who have not been chosen by any school. Teacher salary scales would be set by the market, so that teachers with fine reputations could demand higher pay; some might also accept lower pay in order to work in highly attractive schools.

Each school's contract would specify processes and standards for student admission. To avoid charges of discrimination, all school contracts would call for admissions by random selection from the list of all who apply. No school would be allowed to handpick only the ablest students.

Schools would also be obligated to help students having academic difficulty, and to do everything possible to help students benefit from instruction. A school could set requirements about homework, attendance, and diligence, but it must continue helping students as long as they made the required effort.

Local school boards not wanting to execute separate contracts with dozens or hundreds of individual schools might prefer to deal with organizations capable of running several schools under a master contract. Organizations responsible for several schools, called Management and Assistance Providers (MAPs), could be a local board's prime contractors. MAPs could develop distinctive approaches to student instruction and staff training and capitalize on the recognition and consumer confidence that a "brand name" engenders.

Contracting has three major advantages. It

  • Creates positive performance incentives for school staffs;
  • Ensures that public funds are spent at the school level, where they count; and
  • Deflects pressure for overregulation of schools.

Because contract schools would be schools of choice, a school would need to attract students in order to survive. It must therefore offer something that sets it apart—a distinctive curriculum, social climate, or extracurricular program. It must also provide a stable program that parents can rely on. Contracting therefore encourages a number of behaviors that "effective schools" advocates have tried to create in public school staffs. School staffs would have a strong incentive to set out a mission for the school and to ensure that all parts of the school work together.

Contracting creates strong pressures on public officials to maximize the share of funds spent at the school level and limit the amount spent on administration, regulation, and support of central decisionmaking processes. School contractors will know exactly how much money they have to spend, and therefore how much is skimmed off by the state or local central offices. Superintendents and boards will have to explain where money goes and why central office activities cost as much as they do.

Contracting would stabilize the rules under which schools operate. Public officials are now free to impose new requirements on schools at will: since nobody knows exactly how much money schools spend, or for what, it is hard to quantify the cost of a new mandate to add a course, write new reports, change staff assignments, or mainstream a group of students who were previously served in a special program. School contractors would be in a strong position to point out what new requirements cost and how they affect productivity.


Contracting is a promising idea that deserves a serious test. It could work for the vast majority of U.S. school systems. Any K–12 public education system that has more than one school can hold multiple contracts, one for each school. Even small-town and rural school systems with only one large high school could create two or more smaller schools within the same building, and benefit from the flexibility, diversity, and performance pressures that contracting provides.

Most of the important actors in public education would benefit from contracting. Public officials and taxpayers would know that funds for education were truly spent on schools, not bureaucracy. School boards that have struggled for years to improve particular schools could use contracts to restaff or recommission those schools. Teachers and administrators would gain the satisfaction of working in organizations that were free to be productive. Teachers who showed they could run successful schools would gain new professional opportunities, even including extra income.

School boards in the big cities can be the first to take advantage of the new opportunity by contracting out for operation of their lowest-performing schools. This would subject the concept to a hard first test. Success in the most difficult places will make the case for the widespread adoption of contracting.

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