Pernicious Assaults

Public administration finds itself in a vortex of two particularly pernicious trends: a political assault on local knowledge and professional competence.
May 21, 2008
George Frederickson
By H. George Frederickson  |  Contributor
H. George Frederickson was a GOVERNING contributor. He is the Edwin O. Stene Distinguished Professor of Public Administration at the University of Kansas.

In the modern world of shared power and diffuse accountability, public administration finds itself carried into a vortex of two particularly pernicious trends. First is the growing tendency of officials in central governments, which are part of federated and intergovernmental systems, to deny the importance of local knowledge. Second is the continuing political assault on all forms of professional competence, particularly management competence. Each trend, by itself, is injurious to governmental effectiveness. Together, they spell disaster, particularly in an era of shared power. One example springs to mind.

We are nearing the end of a generation of public-education reform -- not a grassroots reform growing up from the schools and the school districts, but a reform initially driven by the states and now a major federal initiative, No Child Left Behind. State legislators and governors, as well as presidents and members of Congress, have discovered that it is good politics to declare that many public schools are not effective and that it is particularly good politics to pass laws designed to fix schools.

Although the advocates of reform -- mostly politicians and consultants -- squeal at the fact, modern education reform is based on the assumption that local school boards generally don't know what they are doing. Educational knowledge in Austin, Sacramento and particularly Washington, D.C., trumps the collective knowledge of members of the local school boards in Dallas, Fresno and the District of Columbia. The whole purpose of local school boards is based on the primacy of local knowledge and local democratic control. However well meaning, contemporary education reform is a massive insult to that primacy and to any reasoned sense of effective policy making in federated systems.

It is not just local school boards that are deemed ineffective by reformers at the state and federal levels -- teachers, principals and superintendents are also in the crosshairs. However well meaning, this approach to education reform is a massive insult to the logic of professional competence. When children have trouble in school, it is poor politics to point to the family or to parents, but it is good politics to blame the teachers. And, that is precisely what state and federal legislators tend to do. In a wonderful recent survey by Emporia State University, it was determined that people give the schools their children attend either an A or a B, but they give state legislators a D or an F. Now there is local knowledge for you.

The substance of the top-down education reform project is debatable, and this is not the place for that debate. What is not debatable is that No Child Left Behind is a whopping unfunded mandate, as are many education reforms initiated by the states. Because the states have constitutional responsibilities for public education and they are paying an ever-increasing share of the costs, they do have a legitimate claim regarding their role in local education reform. However, the federal government has no such claim. Some states, such as Vermont, are openly rebelling against the federal government on this matter and others are quietly engaging in what could be charitably described as passive implementation of No Child Left Behind. Teachers and principals, bless them, are soldiering on; after all, they are the ones who are really trying not to leave any child behind. Rather than the top-down logic of No Child Left Behind, genuine education reform must come from substantive processes of negotiation and collaboration between states and school boards and among states, school boards and the federal government.

In a world of shared power, the lessons of education reform are these: Local knowledge matters, and policy and policy implementation are most successful when based on negotiation, compromise and mediation between central and local authorities. Professional competence matters, and policy works best when elected officials listen carefully to experts at the local level who will be carrying out that policy.