Governors’ Panel Calls for School Choice

Published February 1, 2000

In a clear indication of how school choice has become accepted as a key strategy in the public policy debate over education reform, a blue-ribbon panel that advises state officials says parental choice in education could help improve and strengthen public schools.

In a report issued November 15, 1999, the National Commission on Governing America’s Schools called for fundamental changes in the way U.S. schools are governed by giving more freedom to teachers, principals, and parents.

The panel’s recommendations can be summarized as:

  • Let parents choose schools.
  • Let school taxes follow the child.
  • Let schools control budgets.
  • Let schools hire and fire teachers.

Such recommendations are often voiced by advocates of choice-based school reform as a way of bringing market accountability to public education. Significantly, the recommendations now come from a panel instrumental in helping shape state-level public policy on education across the nation. The panel is part of the Education Commission of the States, which is run by the nation’s 50 governors.

Unlike the teacher unions, who claim school choice “abandons” public schools that aren’t serving children’s needs, the panel views choice as a means of increasing the number of successful schools and of strengthening public schools. It is school governance that matters, and the key to getting more good schools is having the right system of governance, says the panel, whose members include Democrat Paul Patton, governor of Kentucky, and Republican Frank Keating, governor of Oklahoma.

“Without good governance, good schools are the exception, not the rule,” notes the panel’s report, “Governing America’s Schools: Changing the Rules.” One way of changing the rules that govern public education is to “change who makes what education decisions within states, districts, and schools.”

According to ECS chairman, Wyoming Governor Jim Geringer, the report is “designed to replace the tyranny of supply with the democracy of consumer demand.”

Commission member David Osborne, co-author of Reinventing Government, put it more bluntly, comparing the organization of American public education to that of the state-run factories of the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Just like Soviet factories, public schools are told what to produce, to what standards, for how long, how to spend their budgets, sometimes even whom to hire. They have little control over their operations, but also little accountability for performance.

“If a school did a wonderful job, nothing good happened to its principal and teachers; but if it did a terrible job, nothing bad happened, either,” said Osborne. “Like one of those Soviet factories, it could just keep pumping out defective products.”

As the panel’s report notes, quoting management guru Peter Drucker, “The right structure does not guarantee results. But the wrong structure aborts results and smothers even the best-directed efforts.”

The report recommends two options for lawmakers to consider for changing school governance. The first involves a system of full public school choice, coupled with management decentralization to make individual schools responsible for their own decisions about budgets, staffing, and spending priorities.

The second option also would involve full public school choice, but all public schools essentially would become charter schools. School districts would continue to fund, authorize, and oversee the performance of schools but would get out of the business of operating them. Instead, districts would contract with independent entities–nonprofit and for-profit organizations, sole proprietorships, or cooperatives, for example–to run schools in much the same way they currently run charter schools.

The second option envisions private and parochial schools coming into the public school mix, but the Commission’s report offers no details about how much autonomy such schools could lose in the process.

The Commission and ECS staff have committed to engage in a national debate over K-12 public education governance, and to work directly with state and school district leaders interested in rethinking and redesigning their governance systems.

Further debate seems likely. Mary Ellen Maxwell, president of the National School Boards Association and a school board member from Moyock, North Carolina, immediately blasted the report as “a huge step backward,” saying that decentralization was not in the best interest of all schools and that independently operated schools “would take away key roles and responsibilities of the elected school board.”

For more information …

The November 15, 1999 report from the National Commission on Governing America’s Schools, On Governing America’s Schools: Changing the Rules, is available from the Commission’s Web site at