The People News, a free newspaper serving Cleveland Tennessee (TN) and Bradley County Tennessee (Tn).

Of Bradley County Tn.


                            The People News, a free newspaper serving Cleveland and Bradley County Tn.







The Theory of Devolution Revisited

By J.C. Bowman

It has been said the subconscious is the writer's best friend and most merciless critic.  Several years ago Dr. Lew Solomon, the former dean of the UCLA Graduate School of Education and current program administrator for the Milken Family Foundation and I wrote an article that gained national attention, called The Theory of Devolution.  The article was such an easy subject to write about, and captured so much of the feeling prior to the No Child Left Behind legislation that we wrote the article in about two drafts.  Dr. Solomon has such a tremendous appetite for the intellectual, having studied under six Nobel Prize winners at the University of Chicago School of Economics.  It was amazing upon rereading this article later due to the underlying complexity that we ourselves were not fully aware of at the time of creation.

Most conservative orthodoxy in education and other policy areas is devolution. What devolution means is that the power to make decisions is returned to those closest to the people and taxpayer money is spent for the needs at the local level rather than at the national level. 

Conservatives generally agree that local authorities know better than Congress or the US Department of Education whether schools in their district would be better off with new roofs or with smaller class sizes. That idea reveals common sense conservative thought in most cases. However, the classical free market model is based on a number of assumptions that may not always be true.

Perfect information is one example of a false supposition. We assume that when local decision-makers control policy choices, these officials are aware of which policies have been shown to be the right ones. Yet state or district decisions to reduce class size, to implement whole language reading programs, or to place certain students in bilingual programs have not been based on evidence that these would enhance student achievement. The consequences of this assumption is a decline in fourth grade reading results for poor children on the NAEP, demonstrating that local decisions on these issues have not been effective.

Granted we can argue that it is a local right to abdicate responsibility to education children well, but as we move to a global society, is that really a valid argument? We can also assume that federal, state and local decision-

J C Bowman

-J. C. Bowman, a native of Cleveland, is a well informed and outspoken conservative educator.  He is currently a resident of Tallahassee.  J.C. is a proud American, who served his country 1982 to 1985 in the United States Marine Corps. He says his rifle is locked and loaded, and he's ready to go if his country ever needs him again!

makers have some mutual goals. But commonality of goals can no longer be taken for granted.

Thus far the overarching aim of the Bush administration has been to enhance student achievement with a simple message that we should leave no child behind.  It is difficult to imagine that states and districts do not subscribe to this federal goal. However, desires of state or local decision-makers to appease certain constituents, to insure re-election, or merely to minimize conflict may reduce the urgency of meeting the federal objectives.

Devolution also presumes that well-intentioned state or local officials have the ability to act on accurate information in ways consistent with meeting agreed-upon goals. There is tremendous variability in the power structure of educational interests across states and districts.

Teacher unions come immediately to mind, but often school boards and schools of education often are just as likely to obstruct activity at the state or district level. For example teacher unions might oppose performance-based compensation, but school boards often object to policies shifting decision from the district to the school site; and colleges of education reject alternative certification for teachers because that could reduce jobs for professors.

In theory, federal funds shifted from earmarked programs to block grants, assuming the money is made flexible, can be put to best use. However, think of a district that has used so-called class size reduction money to lower class size in its schools. It has hired new teachers and thereby committed money to pay them. The fact that such money is now bundled into a pot that may be used for a variety of teacher quality initiatives does not free up money already committed to additional teachers-at least not without much upheaval and controversy.

So how can we reconcile these problems with beliefs in individual rights and local decision-making? First, one must ask if there are situations where these principles must be suspended. Leaving decisions about the width of railroad tracks to the states or to individual companies resulted in different gauges in different states and the efficiency killing need to transfer freight to different railway cars at state borders. A federal mandate solved that problem.

Yet we must clearly recognize differences in state and local education priorities. Consequentially we must ask ourselves whose individual rights and whose local decision making do we seek to protect: the providers of the funding (i.e. the taxpayers) or the users of the funding (i.e. the education establishment)?  We suggest the former.

If taxpayers elect a president and Congress with instructions to improve student achievement and to leave no child behind, it is these rights and desires that the President and Congress should protect. By simply sending money to an establishment that may not know how to achieve the goals set by taxpayers, or may not be willing or able to do so, the federal government is abdicating its responsibility.

But clearly this is not a call for the federal government to micromanage our state and local education policy and practice. Rather it is a suggestion that in certain instances sending unencumbered pots of money to the states may be a bad idea. The middle ground is to send states the money with incentives to put it to good uses that have been identified by proven quality research and methods. We need to help well-intentioned state and local education officials do the right things-even if we do not tell them exactly how to do them.

Previous federal efforts have expressed little reluctance to impose their will on the education enterprise, and unfortunately program funding has simply not been tied to program results. Consequently education reform has been forced to deal with interest groups that have thrived under this system.  Can better policies result from sending unencumbered money to those interest groups?  Is devolution always the best policy for conservatives? 

Let the debate begin.