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State Educational Systems - The Legal Basis for State Control of Education, School Organization Models, The School District Consolidation Movement

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The American system of public schooling is unusual for a modern state, as most nations rely upon education systems operated by the national government. The education system in the United States is actually a set of state-based systems. There is, however, a federal government role in education, and national education organizations and activities exist. But the ultimate authority–what is called plenary authority–for schooling in the United States resides with the individual states.

The Legal Basis for State Control of Education

The U.S. Constitution omits any consideration of education or schooling–in fact, the words education and schooling do not appear in the document. James Madison's diary of the Constitutional Convention suggests that education was not even a topic of consideration at the Philadelphia deliberations. The only education topic of serious concern was whether or not to form a national university, which the delegates decided against.

The absence of any specific mention of education, coupled with the Constitution's Tenth Amendment, renders education a state function. The Tenth Amendment states that "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution … are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people." This was a new and unique system, and it could be said that prior to formation of the United States, charters of liberty were granted by those with power, while in the United States, charters of power were now granted by those with liberty. The constitutions of all fifty states assume specific responsibility for education. Hence, the U.S. education system, by default, is a set of systems, not a single national system.

School Organization Models

At the time of the nation's founding, transportation and communication were primitive by twenty-first-century century standards. Consequently, states generally saw fit to delegate authority for school operation to local school districts. The United States has two major models for local school districts.

The New England model of school organization. The Massachusetts Commonwealth General Assembly enacted the Old Deluder Satan Act in 1647. This statute established township school districts. These were notable for three reasons: (1) schools were to be local or municipal, (2) the school boards that operated them were presumed to be made up of laypersons, and (3) these locally school boards were considered a form of "special" government, meaning that their authority was restricted to education. This New England model came to characterize most of the nation's educational systems. It spread west with the Northwest Ordinance, and eventually found its way into most of the states resulting from the Louisiana Purchase.

The Southern model of school organization. The Middle Atlantic and southern colonies existed under the sphere of influence of the Church of England. This body organized its operation into parishes, and parish lines were eventually transformed into county lines. Southern states came to rely far more heavily than the remainder of the nation upon county government, and in the twenty-first century many southern states continue to maintain county school districts or combinations of county and local school districts.

The School District Consolidation Movement

The early twentieth century saw a wave of education efficiency efforts, as American education began to be viewed as ineffective due to its heavy reliance upon small local school districts. A coalition of academic and business leaders began to crusade in state after state for the elimination of small and rurally dominated school boards. The reform effort, which has come to be known as the school district consolidate movement, was reinforced by various other efficiency and good-government efforts. States sometimes simply eliminated districts, but more often they offered financial inducements for districts to combine into larger units.

By 1930, at the height of school district expansion, the United States had more than 125,000 local districts. School board members were then the nation's largest single segment of government officials. By 2000, the district consolidation movement had been dramatically effective, and the number of districts had been reduced to 14,000. Twenty percent of these were in only five states (California, New York, Illinois, Nebraska, and Texas), while the remaining forty-five states had fewer than 10,000 school districts. Some states, such as Maryland (24 districts), Florida (67 districts), Nevada (17 districts), and Delaware (7 districts), had very few.

School district consolidation has been effective in increasing the size of American school districts. By 2000, 25 percent of the nation's students went to school in only 1 percent of its districts, and 50 percent attended school in only 5 percent of the districts. The combination of district consolidation, population expansion, and urbanization has created some huge school districts, such as New York City (more than one million students), Chicago, Los Angeles, and Dade County (Miami), Florida.

The school district consolidation movement was premised upon a belief that larger districts were more efficient to operate economically and that they produced better education for students than rural districts. Neither premise has been proved. It could well be that there are substantial diseconomies of scale in these large districts, and the consolidation movement may in fact have done more harm than good. Whatever its outcome for students, it dramatically reduced the number of school board members. There was at one time a board member for every 250 citizens; in 2002 the ratio of representatives to citizens was twenty times that.

The Modern Era of Big State Education Systems

In the period after World War II, states began to assume greater responsibility for education. They relied less upon local school districts, which had historically run the schools. This happened as small districts became larger and as communication and transportation rendered more direct state control possible. It was also a result of court decisions. Cases regarding racial desegregation, special education, and education finance, as well as school accountability and testing legislation, vested greater and greater authority in the states. By the turn of the twenty-first century, courts were beginning to take state constitutional statements regarding education literally, and they were holding state governments, not local school district officials, responsible for school quality.

In order to meet their legal and operational responsibilities for education, states rely upon several fundamental structural arrangements. All states have an executive, legislative, and judicial branch, paralleling the structure of the federal government. In addition, however, states also have education departments. These are generally bureaus reporting to the governor. In some instances, a state may have a state board of education that oversees the state education department. State structure is rendered more complicated by the position of chief state school officer, sometimes known as the superintendent of public instruction. In some states, the governor appoints a person to this office, in some states it is an elected office, and in a few instances the state board of education makes the appointment. If the chief state school officer is elected or appointed by an actor or agency other than the governor, he or she may have a statewide power base from which political opposition to the governor is possible.

The complicated nature of education governance hampers accountability. If a chief state school officer is not appointed by a state's governor, it is difficult to know who should be blamed or credited for results–the governor, the legislature, the chief state school officer, the state board of education, the state education department, local school boards, local school superintendents, or some other entity.

State Education Department Structure

Each state has an education department among its executive branch bureaus. Some of these, such as in California and New York, are quite large, employing literally thousands of professional and staff members, while in a less populated state, such as Nevada, there may be fewer than a hundred employees. Regardless of size, one will usually encounter the following functions being undertaken. There will be an office of the superintendent with immediate staff and advisers, such as political liaison and public information specialists. There will be a budget office responsible for developing the state education department budget as a planning document. (The governor, often in cooperation with the chief state school officer, and the legislature will undertake the actual education budget and eventual appropriations of public revenues for education.) A budget office may also take responsibility for overseeing management of the department's own operating budget.

Other subunits will specialize in teacher certification, state testing, accountability, private school regulation, finance distribution, fiscal and performance audits, facilities construction, transportation, food service, preschool, accreditation of private and proprietary schools, and possibly higher education.

Higher Education

States have historically relied upon a separate agency or structure to oversee public higher education. However, Florida and, to a slightly lesser degree, New York, provide models by which higher education is in many ways integrated into the larger education picture.

A conventional model is for a state to have a board of higher education, a board of regents, or both. Many states have two higher-education systems. One set of colleges reports to a state board of higher education, while the other is usually a more elite, usually research-oriented, system, comprised of one or multiple flagship campuses. When a state operates two systems of higher education, then invariably it will also have some kind of coordinating body that oversees the two or at least attempts to coordinate their budgets and facility construction efforts. Such coordinating mechanisms seldom prove effective. Colleges and universities often have such powerful alumni (and prestige to distribute) that they can evolve their own special relationships with governors and members of the state legislature.

Community colleges have evolved into a major component of American higher education, accounting for more than half of the nation's postsecondary enrollments. Increasingly, states have merged community college governance with that of their colleges and universities.

Private and religious colleges and universities have tended to be left unregulated by state government. The exception is when states utilize public funds for the tuition subsidy of private college students. Under such circumstances states may exercise a modicum of regulatory influence to protect the public's funds and interests.

As the United States has moved toward mass, rather than elite, higher education, the trend has been to treat colleges (particularly community colleges) and universities more and more like other education institutions and to try to integrate their management with that of K–12 education.

The Role of the Federal Government

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the federal government assumed virtually no responsibility for overseeing or funding education. After the Civil War, Congress enacted the Morrill Acts, providing federal financial incentives for formation of state agricultural, mining, engineering, and military colleges. In 1946, Congress enacted the Lanham Act, which evolved into the Federal Impact Aid program, through which the federal government subsidizes local school districts in which there is a large federal presence (such as a military base).

In the post–World War II period, particularly during the 1960s, Congress enacted many education acts, the most important of which were the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1967 and the Higher Education Acts of 1965 and 1972. In the ESEA, the national government assumed added responsibility for providing local districts with monies for economically disadvantaged students, disabled students, and for student financial aid for higher education.

While the federal government does not have a large operational presence in education, there are still many national influences on American education. For example, there are literally hundreds of national education organizations, representing diverse groups and points of view (e.g., teachers, parents, textbook publishers, test manufacturers), all of which have a national presence and nationwide influence.


BAILEY, STEPHEN K., et al. 1962. Schoolmen and Politics. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.

CUBBERLEY, ELLWOOD P. 1934. Public Education in the United States. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

GUTHRIE, JAMES; GARMS, WALTER I.; and PIERCE, LAWRENCE C. 1988. School Finance and Education Policy: Enhancing Equality, Efficiency, and Choice. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

THEOBALD, NEIL D., and MALEN, BETTY. 2000. Balancing Local Control and State Responsibility for K–12 Education (2000 Yearbook of the American Education Finance Association). Larchmont, NY: Eye on Education.


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