Behind the scenes, a revolution is taking place in primary and secondary education. Once thought sacrosanct, the principle of local lay control has come under growing attack. In the 1970s and 1980s, governors sought greater influence by promulgating academic standards and even taking over failing schools. Mayors soon followed, with some wresting control of struggling local school systems. Atop this, the president and Congress greatly extended their reach into U.S. classrooms with enactment of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which requires annual reading and math tests in grades 3 through 8, tougher yardsticks to measure whether pupils are making sufficient progress, and penalties for schools that persistently fall short.
The result is a spider’s web of responsibility. It is difficult, if not impossible, to figure out where accountability lies. Not only have municipal, state, and federal authorities reasserted control over the separate education government that the nation long ago created, but an array of other institutions—including the courts, community-based organizations, and education management companies—are also deeply involved in school decisions. These trends have created a growing gap between those who make education policy and those responsible for the results. What’s more, they have contributed to widespread confusion about how to fix public education.
In Who’s in Charge Here? some of the finest minds in education cut through the confusion to analyze key issues such as the Constitution’s role in allocating responsibility for education, the pros and cons of growing federal control, how to ensure a supply of talented teachers for the underprivileged, the impact of the school-choice movement, and the expanding non-academic role of schools. Other chapters explore the history of U.S. education governance and propose principles for creating a new system that especially benefits the children who are most in need.
The question of who should be in charge of America’s schools is likely to occupy the nation for years to come. Based on extensive scholarship and practical experience, Who’s in Charge Here? is an important contribution to this critical debate.
Noel Epstein , former education editor of the Washington Post, is a consultant to the Education Commission of the States. He is the author of Language, Ethnicity, and the Schools (Institute for Educational Leadership, 1977), an influential work in the bilingual education debate.