Who Oversees Public Schools?

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Who Oversees Public Schools?
We explore the various models of governance of public schools in the U.S. today, breaking down the responsibilities of the federal, state and local governments.
The governance of public schools is a rather complex issue that incorporates various government entities at the federal, state and local levels. In theory, these various levels should create a tapestry that addresses the needs of students at the most local level without sacrificing education quality across the country. While the model doesn’t always work as planned, the system of checks and balances does provide a mostly workable national education system that crosses state and district lines. Learn more about the basics of public school governance in the United States today.
 
Federal Oversight
 
The federal government is responsible for four basic functions in public education today, according to the U.S. Department of Education website. Those four functions include:

  • Policies related to Education Funding – These policies can promote certain education reform, by offering additional funding to states and districts that choose to abide by federal standards. EdSource explains that the current administration is attempting to do just that, by offering competitive grants through the Race to the Top program. States that fall in line with Race to the Top standards and recommendations stand to receive additional funding from Uncle Sam.
  • Collection of Data and Research – This information is used to identify the strengths and weaknesses in the current state of public education today. By identifying weaknesses in public education, states can draft new policies to close the gaps and improve education quality overall.
  • Identification of Problems in Education at the National Level – By shining the light on learning gaps and other problems in the education system, the federal government encourages states to take action sooner, rather than later.
  • Enforcement of Discrimination Laws – The federal government is responsible for ensuring every child in America receives the same quality of education, regardless of gender, disability, location or income level.

State Governance
 
The states are primarily responsible for overseeing public education today. State governments determine how much of the budget will be used for education funding, which is typically the largest line item in an annual state budget. States are relatively autonomous in the decision making process, although the federal government does exert some influence through their funding choices. In many states, governance is determined through a multi-level model that includes the governor, state legislature and state school board. Most states also have a state department of education that is responsible for overseeing public education in their state.
 
According to the International Affairs Office for the U.S. Department of Education, some of the functions of the state in public education include:

  • Providing and allocating funding for public schools
  • Setting state standards for assessments, standards and curriculum
  • Overseeing special services for students with disabilities or other challenges
  • Licensing all private and public schools in the state, including charter schools
  • Licensing teachers and other staff members in public schools
  • Electing and appointing at least some of the local and state school board members

Because the state government is highly involved in the public education process, members of the general public can also have their voice in education when they head to the election booth. Many residents of a state may base at least a portion of their voting decisions on the current state of public education in their state. However, individuals who want their opinions heard by those involved in the decision-making process are often better off airing their views with the local school board. 
 
Local School Oversight
 
Finally, schools are governed locally by school boards responsible for overseeing a specific school district. According to State University, school boards have a long history of governing public schools that dates back nearly one century. In most areas, these boards are elected by the general public. However, a few areas of the country, including Chicago, give the mayor of the city authority to appoint the school board, taking governance decisions out of the hands of parents and teachers, and giving it to the local government.
 
According to the website for the National School Boards Association, local school boards serve a variety of functions, including:

  • Oversight and development of school policies within their district
  • Adoption of the school budget and allocation of resources
  • Employment of district superintendent
  • Direction and adoption of district curriculum
  • Acceptance of collective bargaining agreements
  • Determination of policies to guide hiring of other district staff

Local school board members are part of their communities and often have children in the schools they serve. Most tend to be well educated with at least a bachelor degree, and many consider themselves to be politically moderate. These individuals often receive no salary for the work they do on the board, contributing many hours to their local school system on a purely voluntary basis. A few may receive stipends for their service.
 
With many responsibilities, the local school board is involved in both the policymaking and administration of the public schools in their district. While they do not involve themselves in the daily operations of the schools, they are expected to create an organizations structure in which individual schools can operate efficiently. Local school boards frequently work closely with the community as well, hearing input from local citizens on policy and administrative concerns.  
 
With many fingers in the pie of public education today, it can appear to be a complex structure that makes it challenging for decisions to be made and policies to be implemented. However, the careful allocation of responsibilities from the federal to the local level ensures that the division of power allows for leadership at every level of the hierarchy. This system of governance has been in place for many decades, and continues to serve as a mostly effective method of oversight for public education across the country today.

Additional Resources [+]
An Overview of Public School Services
An Overview of Public School Services
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Comparing Private, Public and Charter Schools
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