Reform of K-12 School District and Governance Management in Michigan
May 2011
Report 369


“The problem for reformers is that our current public school system is a lot like a building designed to withstand an earthquake. It has multiple, independent structural supports that flex and bend, dissipating outside jolts of energy. While this makes for a very stable educational system, it also diffuses pressures for positive change – most notably, efforts to reform schools to meet the shifting needs of students and society–The system works to maintain the status quo in public education because, even if one feature is weakened or temporarily taken out of action, the overall system can still reject change.” Paul T. Hill

Public education governance is difficult to define because it can include many things. This paper focuses on general governance issues (e.g. hiring, setting school policies, etc.), the management of schools and districts, and preschool through higher education alignment. Other issues that could be considered part of governance, but will not be addressed in this paper, include funding and the appropriate size of schools and districts.

Interest in governance reform arises from the belief that education delivery can be improved in some districts through changes in the structure of school governance. Recent policy changes indicate that this belief is shared by both the state and federal governments, and this philosophy is reflected in state legislation passed in 2009 that requires changes in governance in the state’s “persistently lowest achieving schools.” Districts placed on this list must develop a reform plan that implements one of four approved turnaround models.

Michigan schools are governed by a complex governance structure where various actors have authority including the federal government, governor, legislature, state board of education, and locally elected school boards. Traditionally, much of the governance authority in Michigan has rested with the locally elected school boards. In recent years, some of this authority has been moved from the local level to the state. In particular, the state has assumed control over decisions on the proper level for funding for school districts, and has assumed control over curriculum. Since much of the remaining authority for governing schools currently resides with locally elected boards, many of the reforms involve either moving authority from the boards to a higher level (e.g. state or federal control) or down to a more local level (e.g. site based management).

When policymakers consider the various reform options they need to be cognizant of aspects of Michigan’s current system that are a hindrance to potential reforms. One major hurdle is that Michigan has a large number of small school districts with only one high school per district and a limited number of elementary and middle schools. This configuration limits the ability to provide choices of different kinds of schools within an individual district.

Reform Models

Reform models discussed in this paper include:

Dependent School Systems – A system where authority is removed from the locally elected board and given to a higher level of government. Dependent school districts are generally under the control of either the mayor of the city in which they are located or the state. Control can be transferred due to academic concerns, financial concerns, or both. The most obvious example of a dependent school district in Michigan is Detroit Public Schools. The state has declared that a financial emergency exists in Detroit Public Schools and has appointed an emergency manager who has both financial and academic control.

Diverse Provider Model – A system in which parents are provided with a choice of different kinds of schools: district-run schools, charter schools, and contract schools managed by private operators. This model assumes that competition will improve the quality of the schools offered and that parents will be able to select the school most appropriate for their child’s educational needs.

Private Management Model – School districts contract with private companies (for-profit or nonprofit) to manage and operate the districts and/or schools within the district. Private providers can run charter schools in a district, or run the traditional schools. When implementing the private model important decisions include how much autonomy to provide to the private provider and how to hold the provider responsible for school improvement.

Decentralized Decision Making – A system of education where authority and responsibility to make decisions on significant matters related to school operations are decentralized from the district to the school level within a centrally determined framework of goals, policies, curriculum, standards, and accountabilities. This reform model is based on the belief that school-level officials are in the best positions to make school level decisions.

Integrated School Systems – A comprehensive and integrated system of education that links all education levels from early childhood education through post-secondary training. Such systems are often referred to as K-16, P-16, or P-20 systems.

If any of the governance or management reforms discussed in this paper are undertaken, they must be undertaken as a means to an end rather than as an end in and of themselves. The reforms may provide a way to change a dysfunctional system, but if they are not well executed and underlying problems are not addressed, they will simply represent replacing one dysfunctional system with another. Transitioning governance does not necessarily lead to change. The actual regime change occurs when state and local officials use the governance change to actually change the administrative and educational practices of district leadership, which in turn, changes the practices of educators throughout the district. Some principles of effective reform that can be applied to any of the models discussed in this paper include:

  1. A clear division of labor, authority, and responsibilities with scope and limit of responsibilities defined.
  2. A coherent strategy that can be understood and pursued.
  3. Transparency.
  4. Representativeness and encouragement for participation.
  5. Accountability.
  6. Engagement of civic leadership and broad constituencies.
  7. A mechanism for different actors in the governance system to learn their roles.
  8. An agenda focused on student learning.

Finally, the importance of good leadership cannot be overstated. This includes superintendents, principals, and teachers. It is beyond the scope of this paper to discuss the results generated by effective leadership or how effective leaders are produced. However, it is clear that leadership matters. A well functioning leadership team provides a foundation for effective governance and administration and an environment in which student achievement can be fostered. The key to effective school governance may be in combining good leaders with good governance structures; it is not clear that either one by itself can produce the desired results on a large scale.

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