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Intergovernmental Relations in Education

Governance Structures, Accountability Standards and Capacity-Building, The Financing of Schools and Intergovernmental Relations

Relationships between branches and levels of government are important in the administration and delivery of educational services in all countries. National ministries of education may wish to control all phases of education, but they inevitably must delegate significant aspects of the operation and delivery of educational services to lower levels of government. The more decentralized the governance system, and the more branches and levels of government there are, the more complex intergovernmental relationships may be. But, even in nations with highly centralized approaches to governance, the relationship between the central ministry of education and schools and colleges is important. Any government's policies are only as effective as their design and implementation permit, and effective implementation is heavily influenced by the character of the relationship that exists between branches and levels of government.

Governance Structures

Most nations have a unitary government, which means that the central government holds sovereign power over all lower levels of government. The lower levels of government are subordinate to the national government, which can overrule or even abolish them. By contrast, some nations have adopted federal governance systems, in which power is shared between the national government and state or regional units, which cannot be abolished. These federations with constitutions developed in nations, such as Australia, Canada, Germany, and the United States, where regional differences are important and where former colonies or semiautonomous states banded together out of common interest. In federal systems, education usually is the legal responsibility of the state governments rather than the national government. Still, even in federal systems, national interests in such matters as equality of opportunity and educational adequacy and excellence inevitably cause the national governments to play a role in education.

Whether control over a nation's government is democratic or autocratic, and whether a unitary or federal system is used, there can be significant variation in the degree to which the government is centralized or decentralized. By definition, one expects decentralization in federal systems, but this is not always the case. For example, until the mid-1980s Australia's states ran highly centralized statewide education systems in which all but the simplest decisions were made in the state ministries of education in the capitol cities. For the most part, Germany's states continue to run highly centralized education systems.

Beginning in the 1980s, a reform movement advocating decentralization and much greater decision-making at the school level (school-based management or "self-managing schools") began to spread across the world, especially the English-speaking world. School-based management sought to restructure the decision-making chain of command by shifting authority from highly centralized bureaucracies to the school site level. New Zealand adopted this approach completely, and some Australian states have moved in this direction. Britain presents a complex and interesting example of these trends. It has reduced the power of the local education authorities (roughly equivalent to American and Canadian school districts) and given schools much more decision-making authority, but the entire system operates under a powerful central government in London. In the United States, more than one-third of all school districts have implemented some version of school-based management, and at least five states–Colorado, Florida, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Texas–have legislated participatory decision-making at each school.

The high degree of decentralization in the structure of educational governance in the United States is unusual. The kind of local control that exists in the United States, through the delegation by states of substantial decision-making power to elected school boards of lay citizens in some 15,000 local school districts, is rare. Most nations have far more centralized arrangements. In European nations, such as France and Germany, civil servants operating within highly bureaucratized agencies or ministries of education tightly control the education system. In these settings, local citizens have little or no voice in decision-making for schools, and a highly professionalized (or at least bureaucratized) cadre of educators hold sway.

The stark contrast between, on the one hand, highly centralized and bureaucratized systems of governance and, on the other hand, decentralized systems that allow for local and lay participation in educational policy-making raises the question of how best to structure the governance of education. Here, it is common to see a tension between competing values. Efficiency, it can be argued, is best served by a centralized system that can better ensure consistent standards throughout a nation than a decentralized system. On the other hand, centralized systems are prone to develop bureaucratic rigidities that can ultimately impede efficiency, not to mention liberty and democracy. Debates about the proper governance of public services, in fact, often seem to revolve around the tension between the competing values of democracy and efficiency. Unfortunately, by themselves neither centralized nor decentralized approaches to government can guarantee either democracy or efficiency.

Accountability Standards and Capacity-Building

Many nations require students to pass national examinations in order to advance in school or exit from the school system. These high-stakes exams and the accompanying national curriculum provide a common standard for all students and schools and help establish a coherent educational system. In the United States, however, a debate continues over curriculum standards, testing, and accountability measures and over which level of government (local, state, or federal) should be responsible for these measures. The long tradition of local control over education impedes state and national efforts to impose standards and accountability systems. Further, high-stakes examinations conflict with American beliefs in freedom, individualism, and multiple opportunities for success. Inevitably, national goals, individual and minority rights, and regional differences conflict and contribute to tensions in intergovernmental relations.

Most U.S. states have established academic and curricular standards with testing and other accountability requirements, and many have experienced increasingly tense intergovernmental relations. The highly publicized takeover of the academically and fiscally distressed School District of Philadelphia by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in December 2001 illustrates how volatile intergovernmental conflicts can become when serious consequences are attached to school accountability measures. When higher levels of government intervene in or take over failing schools or school districts, the assumption is that the higher levels have the capacity to correct the problems. But, owing to underinvestment, state education departments sometimes lack the capacity to provide the technical assistance and professional development necessary to reinvigorate failing schools. Many schools lack the organizational capacity to respond effectively to the demands of higher academic standards, so staff professional development and capacity-building efforts are key activities in which higher levels of government need to assist them.

The Financing of Schools and Intergovernmental Relations

The costs of professional development efforts, not to mention the basic costs of operating and maintaining schools, lead to the important question of intergovernmental arrangements for the finance of education, including the relative share of the costs different levels of government should contribute. Ideally, there are provisions, such as in Australia, to ensure that the same amount of government tax money is provided to finance a child's education regardless of where the child lives. But arrangements can be far less logical and equitable than that. The tradition of local control of education in the United States has produced a situation in which the funding of schools is heavily influenced by the wealth of individual communities. Even though American states try to equalize funding through contributions of state funds to augment local property tax revenue, many states still allow large disparities to exist between the levels of spending in local school districts that vary in wealth. Since the 1960s, this inequitable pattern has been challenged in numerous court cases, and reformers have succeeded in reducing the disparities in some states.

The funding of schools is likely to become even more complicated as governmental agencies are now having to determine who is responsible and at what level for the costs of educating students who no longer attend local schools but instead receive their education through "cyber schools" over the Internet. Cyber schools and other technological advances pose new challenges to intergovernmental relations and raise new politically charged questions. Policy-makers must determine, for example, if cyber schools–in which students primarily stay home and access materials online with little direct contact with teachers–should be counted and financed as public education. Further, cyber schools raise new questions about school funding for which there have been no clear answers. Who should pay? What amount should come from local funds and what from state or national? Beyond fiscal questions, cyber schools also raise accountability and regulatory issues.

Intergovernmental Relations and School-Linked Social-Services Coordination

Children worldwide face a multitude of modern problems that include increased incidents of substance abuse, inadequate and unaffordable housing, racism, sexism, child abuse and family violence, sexual promiscuity and teen pregnancy, poverty, hunger, and limited or poor health care. These problems place children at risk and put schools at the epicenter of interconnected social problems. Yet the services needed to respond to these problems are typically fragmented across a variety of uncoordinated government agencies. Consequently, many Westernized nations are increasingly adopting policies to have schools and external agencies collaborate to help meet students' nonacademic needs and provide more comprehensive support services for at-risk students and their families.

School-linked social-services efforts illustrate the complicated nature of intergovernmental relations in education. Although each school, social-service agency, or branch of the government seeks to assist those in need, jurisdictional and organizational problems can limit their ability to work together to find sustainable solutions that help those most at risk. Coordinated, school-linked services create new expectations and complexities and introduce new actors, thereby increasing organizational demands, ambiguities, and, potentially, loss of control. A fundamental challenge in intergovernmental collaborative efforts is to overcome the barriers created by the effects of competing institutional interests that emphasize protecting jobs, budgets, programs, facilities, and the agency's "turf" and clientele.

Organizational and professional differences among various government and nonprofit agencies, including schools, create barriers that include a lack of a common outlook and professional language, communication problems, licensure issues, and confidentiality issues. Also problematic are issues such as space and facilities management; funding issues and resource mingling; differing salary and personnel policies; new roles and relationships between educators and other agency personnel; leadership issues; deficits and differences in professional preparation programs and training; information sharing and retrieval; and control and legal issues. Research indicates that these are significant barriers that can impede intergovernmental/interagency collaboration.


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