The end of governance geography: Hess and Meeks point the way to the Promised Land

Of the thirteen papers presented at Fordham’s Rethinking Education Governance for the 21st Century last December, one that had particular resonance for me was Rick Hess and Olivia Meeks’s analysis of the school district dilemma.

Hess and Meeks envision an education world organized around function not geography.

Nobody seems to like school boards (except me, perhaps), and the authors begin with a crisp summary of some of the sharper arrows shot their way. But Hess and Meeks do a brilliant job of taking us by the hand and leading us gently through the weeds of school board governance and the foothills of the popular alternative of mayoral control, until we reach the mountain top where they show us a place where we “organize schooling around function rather than geography.” It’s an amazing view.

Today, they argue, “every school district is asked to devise ways to meet every need of every single child in a given area,” and it doesn’t work. Districts are simply not capable of “build[ing] expertise in a vast number of specialties and services” or “juggl[ing] a vast array of demands [that] require them to become the employers of nearly all educators in a given community.”

Hess and Meeks are too practical to suggest the end of geography (i.e., all virtual all the time), but they understand that current school district impotence is a symptom of a problem not its cause. Importantly, their analysis of the causes also makes them doubtful that suggested alternatives to school boards, like mayoral control, move us in the right direction.

[T]he critiques voiced by those ready to abolish or overhaul boards seemingly imply tacit approval of the antiquated, geographically configured school district itself. Instead of addressing the fact that the ship itself is taking on water, those pursuing governance reforms have focused on who should be at the helm. While a good captain is undoubtedly preferred to a bad captain, reformers serious about righting the ship must be ready to address the bigger challenges.

Among the bigger challenges: The ship is sinking.

The chances that current suggestions for fixes—such as making board elections more relevant, reducing the influence of unions, or mayoral control—“will be the bearers of revolutionary change in governance are,” say the authors, “slim, at best.” They provide a useful chart showing the advantages and disadvantages of the elected school board model and that of mayoral control, but what they are really after is an alternative that would, essentially, free school governance from its place-based constraints.

Thus, you would have education providers—each offering its own set of specialties and services—roaming the country (virtually or otherwise), providing their services directly to schools or sets of schools instead of the department store model of education we now have. They write:

A glance at catalogues from the early 1900s shows the one-stop-shop business mentality of the era. The Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalogue, for instance, features firearms, baby carriages, jewelry, saddles, and even eyeglasses with a self-test for—old sight, near sight, and astigmatism. That‘s no longer the way providers in most sectors are organized….
Today we push thousands of districts to embrace and implement unwanted programs. If the private sector operated in this fashion, Amazon.com would have restricted its clientele to residents of Washington state, while would-be imitators from across the country flocked in to learn its secrets and then return home to emulate them….
Instead of encouraging school districts to emulate the KIPP Academies model, for instance, policymakers and reformers might focus on enabling and encouraging KIPP to open schools more readily in order to satisfy local demand…

Hess and Meeks suggest the possibility of “competing boards” in a given locale; or “empower[ing] non-profit or for-profit networks that might contract directly with a state” to provide educational services. Or, a third approach “is to do away with districts altogether. One could imagine states turning every school into a charter school.”

I emailed Rick over the holiday and he was gracious enough to elaborate on his ideas in a couple of emails. “The disease is really twofold,” he explained. “Progressive bureaucracy and the perils of place-based governance.” The latter, he says “prohibits specialization, makes it enormously tough to recruit like-minded professional staff or to cater to families who have shared concerns and needs.”

A “portfolio management” governance system that could be part of the future, writes Rick, would, for instance, “allow districts to work with focused organizations to each recruit the professional who can serve the families for whom its approach makes sense.”

The digital revolution, which is just now beginning, is clearly part of the new education world that Hess and Meeks see on the near horizon, a world organized around function not geography.

Hess recognizes that “the giant challenge” here is that we have “no assurance that these providers will cover everywhere,” as he emailed, “and, as with utilities, we have a desire to see schooling available everywhere. One solution is the gradual expansion of virtual options. But the other is having localities play a role in attracting providers, coordinating them, or providing schools if no one else wants to.”

He thinks the portfolio approach is “the BIG STRETCH in today's thinking about governance,” but it’s also the one he believes is “the minimum” that needs to be done to accomplish the shift needed to create an education governance system that is truly in line with the necessities of the twenty-first century.

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