Want better schools? Try reforming school boards.

How many times in debate over K-12 education policy have you heard about the primacy of “local control”? Typically that means total control by school boards of virtually every facet of local education.

Dissatisfaction with local monopolies led, in part, to the charter school movement. Charters, which are public schools with a lot of autonomy in key employment decisions as well as curriculum, have evoked much controversy. Defenders (myself included) believe that they help promote some competition in schooling, while critics argue that they drain resources and talent away from other public schools.

But what if there were another way to reduce the local monopoly over schooling? What about expressly limiting school boards to deciding only a few things, such as which schools should remain open and which should close, while allowing individual schools–or, more specifically, their principals–run their own affairs? That would be local control over schooling.

And that is the thesis of an important new book, “A Democratic Constitution for Public Education,” by longtime education scholar >Paul Hill and his co-author, political scientist Ashley Jochim.

The two argue persuasively that devolution of power and expanded control of education by principals at their schools would not only establish accountability for results, like those shareholders demand of any corporation, but would also cut out large costs of the bureaucracies that have grown up around local school boards. True, some of those costs for providing common services–such as transportation, food, and supplies–would still exist, but in a Hill/Jochim world these activities would no longer be controlled by the school board monopoly. Service providers would compete for business among multiple schools, like suppliers do for all businesses in the private sector. One benefit of all this that the authors don’t highlight: Some of the money saved by decentralized purchasing could help shore up weak teacher pension funds in many states. 

States are where the revolution must begin. Changing state laws to permit localities to pare school board authority to the bare essentials would allow true competition and improvement in public schooling to take root. This kind of change is long overdue.