In his 2013 State of the State Address, California Governor Jerry Brown brilliantly explained the unworkable regulatory situation American public schools are in:
In the right order of things, education—the early fashioning of character and the formation of conscience—comes before legislation. Nothing is more determinative of our future than how we teach our children. If we fail at this, we will sow growing social chaos and inequality that no law can rectify.
In California’s public schools, there are six million students, 300,000 teachers—all subject to tens of thousands of laws and regulations. In addition to the teacher in the classroom, we have a principal in every school, a superintendent and governing board for each school district. Then we have the State Superintendent and the State Board of Education, which makes rules and approves endless waivers—often of laws which you just passed. Then there is the Congress which passes laws like “No Child Left Behind,” and finally the Federal Department of Education, whose rules, audits and fines reach into every classroom in America, where sixty million children study, not six million.
Add to this the fact that three million California school age children speak a language at home other than English and more than two million children live in poverty. And we have a funding system that is overly complex, bureaucratically driven and deeply inequitable. That is the state of affairs today.
The laws that are in fashion demand tightly constrained curricula and reams of accountability data. All the better if it requires quiz-bits of information, regurgitated at regular intervals and stored in vast computers. Performance metrics, of course, are invoked like talismans. Distant authorities crack the whip, demanding quantitative measures and a stark, single number to encapsulate the precise achievement level of every child.
We seem to think that education is a thing—like a vaccine—that can be designed from afar and simply injected into our children. But as the Irish poet, William Butler Yeats said, “Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire.”
This year, as you consider new education laws, I ask you to consider the principle of Subsidiarity. Subsidiarity is the idea that a central authority should only perform those tasks which cannot be performed at a more immediate or local level. In other words, higher or more remote levels of government, like the state, should render assistance to local school districts, but always respect their primary jurisdiction and the dignity and freedom of teachers and students.
Subsidiarity is offended when distant authorities prescribe in minute detail what is taught, how it is taught and how it is to be measured. I would prefer to trust our teachers who are in the classroom each day, doing the real work – lighting fires in young minds.
I agree strongly with Governor Brown that Subsidiarity is what we desperately need in educational governance. Centralized education systems require education to be highly routinized and structured in order for the monitoring of such a large number of students to be feasible. Thus, the only way to allow the flexibility and individualization that students need is to rip away those outer layers of control.
Subsidiarity throughout the whole system is the reform that would have the most widespread impact in education. Every single student attending public school would be impacted by this.
Another reform that would achieve the same purpose at a smaller scale would be the introduction of Education Vouchers. This policy would allow students to escape the bureaucratic tangle by allowing their parents to use public money (equivalent to the per average year cost of educating a public school student) toward enrollment in a private school, which is free from government regulation.
A third reform, which would impact roughly the same number of students as Education Vouchers, but not as deeply, would be legislation to allow Charter Schools. Charter schools are publicly funded schools under public jurisdiction, yet exempt from the mandates of local school districts. This is a step in the right direction, but the policy doesn't go far enough since charter school laws generally require charter schools to administer state tests and meet state mandated performance standards. Thus, charter schools have the freedom to teach how they want, but not necessarily what they want since they are still accountable to the state tests, which are based on state mandated education standards. If their students do not meet certain performance standards on those tests, their charters will be revoked. Therefore, I wouldn't recommend dedicating too much energy fighting for charter school legislation unless the legislation completely exempted charter schools from state tests and standards.