July 1, 2004 - From the August, 2001 issue

State's Educational Governance System Is Dysfunctional: Picus Suggests A Redefinition Of State and Local Roles

California's educational system is described by many as flawed. But is it the educational component that's broken? Or is it the financial component? Or could it simply be poor management? Lawrence O. Picus tackles that question in the following excerpt from last month's PPIC Report entitled "School Finance and California's Master Plan for Education." Picus focuses on redefining state governance by holistically incorporating the components of management, finance and education into a new statewide framework. MIR is pleased to offer the following excerpt.

Lawrence Picus

By: Lawrence O. Picus


In response to widespread concern over the performance of California's public schools, education officials have enacted numerous reforms and developed a range of new accountability mechanisms. Despite these efforts, serious concerns about California's schools remain. These concerns can be traced to many factors, but several observers have noted that the state's inability to carry out a continuous and coherent educational reform program is at least partly due to its splintered governance structure.

Any analysis of this governance structure must deal with four key factors. The first is the split between state and local control. Many legislators publicly support a system in which the state provides resources to schools and then holds them accountable for results. Yet the sheer number of state-level categorical programs, each accompanied by its own reporting system, suggests a different reality to the average school or district administrator. Despite continued talk of local control and its virtues, recent developments indicate that state-level policies, financial incentives, and regulations increasingly guide the provision of educational services in California.

The second key factor in educational governance is the number of state agencies involved in policymaking. Like many states, California has a Superintendent of Public Instruction and a State Board of Education. The respective duties of these entities are not defined in the state constitution, however, and relations between them have been characterized by conflict since the early 20th century (Haberman, 1999). Over the last 30 years, this conflict has been complicated by the actions of the legislature, which has taken an increasingly active role in educational policy and funding priorities. The recent addition by executive order of a Secretary for Education to the governor's cabinet has added a new element to an already complicated governance structure. Moreover, the conflicts and complications of the current arrangement have been magnified by Sacramento's growing role in school finance, administration, and regulation.

Two other factors-the school finance system and collective bargaining agreements with teachers-are not features of California's educational governance structure as such, but they also play key roles in educational policy and will affect reform efforts in important ways.

The Options for California

[T]his section discusses options for the organization of state agencies with responsibility for education [and] for school finance

Options for Organizing State Agencies

Another challenge for the Master Plan is to delineate the responsibilities of the state's policy actors. Recent court rulings have indicated that the State Board of Education should establish goals for public education but not be involved in micro-management, whereas the SPI should manage the day-to-day operations of the California Department of Education and execute board policies. The role and operational responsibilities of the Secretary for Education are less clear, however, and the legislature is free to enact new programs according to its own views. Much of the actual implementation of these programs is left to the California Department of Education, the fifth party in the state governance structure. Although the department's responsibilities have increased over the last decade, its budget has been reduced by nearly 50 percent. In recent years, the governor has been the most powerful force in determining the state's education policy. Governor Wilson's class-size reduction order exemplifies this point, and some observers have argued that Governor Davis's power in education policy has "soared to unprecedented heights" (Kirst, Hayward, and Fuller 2000, p. 89).

The problems with this governance structure are well known. In 1996, the Constitution Revision Commission's report noted that the state's educational system has no focal point for responsibility, little flexibility for local districts, and no single official or entity accountable for public schools at either the state or local level. The result is a system in which schools receive a torrent of mixed signals. Despite considerable rhetoric to the contrary, state policy in California is more a series of requirements and mandates than a combination of clear goals, adequate support, and local flexibility.

In an effort to clarify responsibilities at the state level, the Legislative Analyst's Office (LAO) has recommended that the state reduce the roles of these agencies and find ways for them to complement one another more efficiently (Hill, 1999). In particular, the LAO suggests that the SPI focus on promoting accountability and local control, collecting and disseminating information about the schools, and serving as an independent advisor to the governor and legislature. The Secretary for Education would be responsible for implementing state policy, enforcing regulations, and managing many or all of the functions of the California Department of Education. This arrangement would improve accountability to the governor. Finally, the LAO suggests that the State Board of Education be recast as a long-term policy board, focusing on the overall direction of the K–12 education system. The board would monitor the implementation and effectiveness of state and federal programs and recommend a comprehensive plan for administering K–12 programs.

These recommendations do not require major constitutional changes. The SPI would remain an elected official accountable to the public at large. That office's management function would be transferred to the administration, thereby reducing the existing tension between the State Board of Education and the SPI and allowing the latter to focus on public advocacy.

An alternative model would be to make the SPI responsible to the State Board of Education. The SPI would be appointed by the board, which could be appointed by the governor and approved by the legislature or elected by the public. This arrangement eliminates questions about the operation of the California Department of Education, allows the board to establish state education policy, and directs the SPI to carry out that policy. However, this model essentially eliminates the role of the Secretary for Education and gives the State Board of Education considerable independence from both the governor and the legislature. Because the SPI would not be an elected official in his or her own right, this arrangement would be less problematic for an elected governor, whose influence would depend to a large extent on whether board members were appointed or elected by the voters.

This option simplifies policymaking by reducing the number of policy actors at the state level. The role of the SPI is essentially that of a manager, and the State Board of Education might fulfill the advocacy role identified by the LAO, particularly if the board were elected. A possible disadvantage is that the governor might exercise less influence over educational management and policy. This change could lead to conflict and, eventually, the establishment of an educational policy office more directly under the governor's control. That development, in turn, would lead to the type of confusion that exists today.


Each of these scenarios is silent on the role of the legislature. If it decides to play a large role in the governance of California schools, the legislature might prefer a model in which the State Board of Education appointed the SPI. The membership of the State Board of Education would be appointed by the governor and approved by the legislature. Alternatively, the legislature might seek to approve the SPI as well. Any such option would require a change in the state constitution, which stipulates that the SPI be elected.

Options for School Finance

Creating a coherent governance structure entails changing the way schools are funded. The legislature has tinkered with the distribution formula for decades, adding new layers of categorical programs to a poorly financed foundation program. The result is a maze of often competing programs, each with its own spending and reporting requirements. These requirements often prevent districts from designing integrated programs to meet specific student needs. Further tinkering with the current system is unlikely to support key educational reforms. Without a more systematic approach to determining adequate funding levels, California may remain a low-spending state for the foreseeable future.

Fortunately, the strong economy has led to rapid increases in school funding, including an 11.4 percent increase for the 2000–2001 school year (EdSource, 2000b). Furthermore, policy options do exist. Odden and Picus (2000) suggest that a school finance formula designed to provide an adequate education for all children would improve equity as well as student outcomes. Perhaps the most promising adequacy-based options rely on what has come to be called the "professional judgment" model. In this approach, panels of educators develop prototypical schools that they believe will enable up to 90 percent of those schools' students to meet state performance goals. Once the costs of these prototypes are determined, the legislature can use them as a reference point in determining the state's education budget. Although districts and schools might choose not to emulate the prototypes in their allocation decisions, they would be held accountable for student outcomes. Actual funding might be adjusted for student, teacher, and district characteristics such as student disabilities, limited English fluency, low income, or special talents and gifts. Additional adjustments could also accommodate other cost differences across the state.

Because the state government already allocates the lion's share of school revenue in California, this sort of funding system would be relatively easy to establish. Once the legislature agreed on an adequate funding level for California's schools, it could determine the amount of property tax revenue and general fund resources needed to support that system. Although this approach would eliminate the need for some categorical programs, the benefits of others should be considered when designing the prototypes and acceptable adjustments to them. To make sure that the needs of students remain at the forefront of the funding system, the prototypical schools and their costs would be reviewed regularly.

Although this model does not address local revenue generation beyond the so-called adequacy level, providing these options may be important to state policymakers. Such local options would have to be consistent with the Serrano requirements as well as the precepts of the Master Plan. In particular, districts could not exploit differences in property wealth to generate local revenues. If local revenue options were allowed, the state would still have to maintain adequate funding for all schools. One problem leading to the Serrano suit was the fact that the state's foundation program provided funding for less than half of what the average school district was spending on each student. If districts were forced to rely on local revenue options to meet basic needs, the system would invite complaints that its funding was inadequate.


[R]ather than attempt an exhaustive discussion of these challenges and the proposals designed to address them, this essay has sought to distill the key features of each challenge, point to the research that bears on each, consider the relevant experiences of other states, and suggest options based on that research and those experiences. It has also sought to emphasize the interrelationships among the challenges. Such interrelationships suggest that systemic reforms, especially in the area of school funding, may be required to meet these challenges. At a minimum, changes in one area should be made only after considering their effects on other parts of the system.

Given these challenges and the complexities that accompany them, which solutions seem most promising? The research and recent experiences of other states recommend a system in which the state government sets standards, monitors progress, and holds school districts accountable for student performance. The role of school districts, in turn, would be to develop methods for achieving and surpassing these state standards.

State agencies and policymakers must also devise ways to complement one another's efforts. The LAO suggests that the SPI should promote accountability and local control, collect and disseminate information about the schools, and serve as an independent advisor to the governor and legislature. The Secretary for Education would be responsible for implementing state policy and enforcing regulations. Many of the current functions of the California Department of Education would be transferred to this executive agency. Finally, the State Board of Education could be recast as a long-term policy board, focusing on the overall direction of the K–12 education system. This arrangement acknowledges that the governor is-and perhaps should be-the key policy player in K–12 education. Although the SPI would play an important role in promoting accountability, most of the responsibility for long-term policy and day-to-day administrative responsibility would be shifted to the governor and his appointees.

Funding will continue to be the legislature's responsibility, and here many would maintain that there is much work to do. Although court decisions, initiatives, and resistance to increased taxes are obstacles to any new funding system, the current one has become increasingly difficult to justify. Most observers regard it as antiquated, overly complex, and incompatible with other reform efforts. Because school funding is now a state rather than a local responsibility, the legislature has become a key player in school reform. At the very least, it should review its approach to categorical programs, eliminate many of them, and resist the urge to add new ones. It would also do well to review adequacy-based funding systems of other states, especially those that develop prototypical schools, estimate their costs, and use that information to develop state education budgets.

Finally, educational policymakers must continue to consider the effects of collective bargaining in their deliberations. Although statewide bargaining and salary schedules seem to follow from the current approach to school funding, such measures work against the principle of allowing localities to achieve standards according to their own methods. In keeping with the proposed division of responsibilities between the state and local school districts, the state should allow local school officials and union representatives to negotiate the best ways to improve student performance in their respective districts.

California's education system today is the embodiment of state control. The governance system must shift its emphasis from managing policy through resource allocation to measuring results on the basis of student outcomes. This is a substantial paradigm shift for policymakers, and one that will require a great deal of dialogue and deliberation before it can be implemented.



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