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Relax School Regulations

January 29, 2018 - 4:32pm CST

By Greg Forster

In Oklahoma and across the nation, we’ve been trying to improve education by tightening regulations on schools. The 1889 Institute recently published a database of mandates that Oklahoma public schools have to follow, and it’s a mind-boggling experience. The irony is that better educational results actually come from giving more freedom and responsibility to schools, principals, and parents—which means relaxing central control.

This question of whether schools are overregulated is especially important in Oklahoma in light of the alleged teacher shortage. There has been a large increase in the number of teachers hired via exceptions to the standard certification system—exceptions that are labeled “emergency certifications” by hysterical people on both sides, and by cynics seeking to exploit hysteria. The question is whether to spend huge amounts of money (that taxpayers don’t have) to try to prop up the certification system, or admit that the certification system is dysfunctional because our schools are overregulated.

Whenever anyone dares to suggest that schools should not be strangled to death by arbitrary and educationally fruitless overregulation, the people who gain power by regulating schools immediately shriek “deregulation!” and “unregulated schools!” They create the false impression of a strict binary choice between the status quo and chaos. Either we let them keep 100 percent of their power over schools, or we loose the tide of mere anarchy upon the world.

But we don’t have to abolish all state oversight to see that schools are now laboring under a smothering burden of rules and mandates. The question is not whether we will ask nothing of our schools. The question is whether we have benefited or harmed schools by pursuing centralized regulation and control as the primary path to educational improvement.

In the past generation, there have been two successful movements in education reform. Both these movements arose from the failure of earlier reform efforts that were focused on increasing resources, staffing, pedagogical research, and other “inputs” to the school system.

For decades, we greatly increased spending, reduced student-teacher ratios, and brought many promising new ideas to schools. Spending per student doubled, then doubled again, even after inflation. And these very expensive reforms produced no net effect on educational outcomes.

Of course, the clamor for more inputs has continued unabated—from those who benefit from the inputs. But by the 1990s, real reformers had concluded that if inputs did not have much relationship to outcomes, inputs were not the problem. The system needed overhauling at a deeper level.

Two strategies emerged. The more prominent strategy, the one that got the most attention and funding, was toward greater centralized control. If schools are given more inputs and they fail to use them to produce better outcomes, then the schools are clearly working to enrich themselves. They can’t be trusted to carry the ball for fixing education.

Who could be trusted? Why, the reformers, of course.

So they set about taking more and more power into their own hands, creating mandate after mandate and regulation after regulation for schools to follow. This, of course, necessitated the creation of a large and very powerful central authority to enforce the regulations. This has been most noticeable at the federal level, but there has also been a dramatic centralization of power in the states as well.

This is not to say that the whole overregulation problem stems from this recent movement. Schools were already overregulated before the 1990s. This was partly a legacy of the regulation-happy days of the 1960s and 1970s, partly a byproduct of judicial overreach, and partly the natural result of a certain heightened public anxiety that always makes itself felt when a policy directly affects children.

The 1889 Institute’s database of public school regulations is the cumulative legacy of these earlier forces and the dramatic increase of regulations in the last generation. It runs to 610 entries. Schools are required to track every individual student’s progress in financial literacy education and every individual teacher’s professional development “points,” spend at least a certain minimum amount on their libraries, and meet test score targets or be subject to sanctions. They must also master obscure laws governing everything from inter-district transfers to the nutritional value of diet soda.

And what is the net result of the education reformers’ regulation mania? The quantitative educational outcomes that the reformers are obsessed with (test scores, graduation rates) are still flat at the end of high school, which is the only point where they matter. And nobody thinks qualitative outcomes (character formation, good citizenship) have improved.

If command and control doesn’t work, what does? That brings us to the other big reform movement that got going in the 1990s—school choice. Access to private school choice programs and charter schools has dramatically increased and shows no sign of slowing down; there are now 62 private school choice programs in 29 states plus Washington, D.C. A large body of research shows that choice improves outcomes both for participating students and for those who remain in district schools.

Escaping the burden of overregulation is one of the main reasons choice is so effective. Choice schools are regulated—in fact, in most states they are overregulated. But they are not nearly as overregulated as district schools.

I once heard a woman who had left her job as principal of a district school to start a school of choice testify in a state legislative hearing. A legislator asked her why she did it. “Because I can hold a meeting,” she replied—explaining that the state’s work rules had made it impossible for her to convene an all-staff meeting as a district school principal.

Choice makes it possible to run schools effectively because it aligns freedom and accountability, and focuses them both at the most local bureaucratic level possible—the school building. This principal now has the freedom to run her school how she needs to. She can be given that freedom because parents have the power to hold her accountable for whether she runs her school well.

We can easily start applying that principal’s principles to the way we run our district schools (on top of enacting school choice programs, of course). The two basic rules are: freedom and accountability must always be kept together, and we should always put as much of them as possible in the individual school building rather than in larger administrative units.

Very few of the regulations in the 1889 Institute’s database deal with issues that really need to be handled at the district level, never mind the state. I honestly think that the nutritional value of diet soda might not even need to be managed by schools at all. But if it does, why not let the principal hire lunchroom staff who are up to the job?

The biggest dysfunction, and hence the biggest potential improvement, involves the hiring and firing of teachers. No one is really qualified to do this except the principals who actually know them. Teachers aren’t interchangeable widgets, they’re human beings.

Of course, building-level freedom for principals would require building-level accountability. The simplest and most effective way to get that, as I’ve said, is parental choice. But reform of school boards and other local governance structures—now typically moribund—could also be a huge help. With cleaner and more transparent local elections for local boards, we could let principals hire and fire teachers, boards hire and fire principals, and voters hire and fire board members.

None of this will be desirable to the huge number of people who now make a living off the School Regulation Industrial Complex. But it ought to be welcome to parents, teachers, and taxpayers alike.

Greg Forster (Ph.D., Yale University) is a Friedman Fellow with EdChoice. He is the author of six books, including "John Locke’s Politics of Moral Consensus" (Cambridge University Press, 2005), and the co-editor of four books, including "John Rawls and Christian Social Engagement: Justice as Unfairness." He has written numerous articles in peer-reviewed academic journals as well as in popular publications such as The Washington Post and the Chronicle of Higher Education.