Powerful incentives compel policymakers to micromanage public organizations by imposing stifling directives, rules, and procedures, sometimes rendering those organizations rigid and ineffective. The incentive to micromanage tends to become stronger as political attention and conflict increase, and as our trust in government declines. Perversely, the sclerotic and ineffective public bureaucracies that micromanaging produces can lead to even more political conflict and distrust—a vicious cycle.
Thousands of public schools, particularly those in large urban districts, have been in such a cycle for decades. As small school districts consolidated into larger ones during the 20th Century, the scope of potential conflict in district politics expanded and school governance became more rigid, distant, and impersonal. Eventually, employee unions also began to use their newly acquired political clout to impose on districts extensive rules and procedures that protected their members’ interests at the expense of organizational effectiveness (not to mention the best interests of children and taxpayers). Federal and state policymakers also got into the mix. Primarily worried about the quality of public education, they imposed yet more directives on districts. This rapidly expanding bureaucracy made thousands of public schools practically unmanageable. Decision-making became prescribed more by rules than by the judgment of school and district leaders.
Not so long ago, these stifling arrangements were a central concern of the education reform movement. Reformers sought to structure governance so that public schools operated more like private-sector organizations. First, they wanted policymakers to free schools from cumbersome rules regulating school inputs, providing school leaders with managerial discretion to best meet students’ educational needs. Second, they wanted the measurement and publication of student results so that managers could be held accountable, either through market forces (schools that did not attract students would not survive) or through state-imposed sanctions for missing performance targets. Both managerial discretion and disciplining mechanisms—market forces and state sanctions—were thought to be key ingredients for making schools effective organizations.
The introduction of public charter schools—which operate independently of politically fraught school districts—are the clear success story of the education reform movement (including here in Ohio). Although the nationwide positive impacts of charter schools are now well known, the purity of the New Orleans experiment makes it the most informative. The Big Easy was hit by a devastating hurricane that resulted in rare freedom from the shackles of local district politics. Nearly all of the city’s public schools were converted to independent charter schools, union-negotiated teacher contracts were voided, and school leaders had the authority to make personnel decisions. Information on students’ academic outcomes (and other school characteristics) became widely available to assist parents as they selected schools for their children, and schools operated on performance-based contracts with a state authorizer (not elected school boards). School leaders were suddenly far freer than before to manage as they saw fit, but they were also held to account for results. Substantial improvements in student outcomes followed, including higher test scores, reduced achievement gaps by income and race, and greater rates of high school and college graduation. The charter school experiment, both nationwide and in New Orleans, is a remarkable testament to the validity of the central tenets of management-focused education reform.
Yet the political forces driving the bureaucratization of public schooling are powerful. There have been moments of pause—as in the creation of charter schools—but the general trend since this country’s founding has been toward the expansion of political conflict and the growth of stifling bureaucracies. Even in New Orleans, the political forces that incentivize policymakers to micromanage schools did not permanently recede. In 2018, despite remarkable academic progress (again, see here), New Orleans re-established its elected school board, albeit with less control over schools than in pre-hurricane days.
Indeed, the entire charter sector has been experiencing increased regulation. Although some regulation is needed to make sure that education markets work (e.g., parents and school authorizers need information on school quality, and government plays an important role in holding poorly performing schools to account and guarding against fraud), last year the Biden administration attempted to essentially regulate away new charter schools that posed a challenge to local districts. Meanwhile, teachers at KIPP Columbus—a beacon for those who seek to improve the life outcomes of economically disadvantaged students—voted to unionize. That school will now be subject to some of the same political pressures that have put a bureaucratic stranglehold on Ohio’s urban district schools. The political forces that made a mess of so many urban districts have charter schools in their sights.
Why don’t policymakers give school leaders managerial discretion?
Much research considers the value to policymakers (e.g., state legislatures) of delegating authority to administrative agencies (e.g., school superintendents and principals). The idea is that these local managers have better information on how various actions, such as hiring particular teachers or investing in particular programs, are likely to impact their students. And they are also in a better position to respond to local circumstances, taking advantage of unanticipated opportunities (e.g., a partnership with a community organization to combat absenteeism) and, generally, directing their staff and budget toward their most productive uses. If policymakers’ and school leaders’ goals are aligned—and if school leaders are at least as knowledgeable as policymakers—then delegation theory indicates that policymakers should give district administrators complete discretion in managing their schools. Otherwise, their attempts to dictate how schools are run can only impede their effectiveness.
The problem is that the goals of policymakers and school leaders are seldom perfectly aligned. The more divergence there is between them, the more worthwhile it is for policymakers to intervene—even though doing so makes schools less effective than they could be because it prevents local administrators from using their expertise and knowledge of local circumstances. Unfortunately for public schools, this potential goal divergence gets worse as the number of policymakers and influential political actors multiply. As the scope of public-school politics expands in this way, policymakers face increased incentives to prescribe school leaders’ actions in ever greater detail. If they don’t, then other political actors may undermine their policy goals by exerting their own influence. These political incentives are even stronger when school employees’ expertise is limited.
This dynamic can be tragic, as those who care most about students’ academic outcomes must resort to suboptimal school bureaucratization. To illustrate how tragic, consider a case in which policymakers are clearly doing what is best for kids in the context of flawed district governance. Ohio policymakers felt compelled to require schools to implement phonics-based reading instruction, and to ban alternatives, because vested interests pushed questionable instructional methods into the state’s classrooms. From their perspective, the benefit of this action (improved reading proficiency) is worth the substantial costs it imposes by, for example, preventing principals and teachers from using a different approach for students who were likely to see few benefits from grade-level phonics instruction (e.g., gifted students who are already able readers). In other words, they have restricted local managerial discretion and, thus, contributed to the stifling public-school bureaucracy.
It’s hard to blame pragmatic lawmakers for securing improvements in student literacy when the evidence is so clear that phonics works for the average student. From the point of view of Ohio leadership, the benefits of micromanaging school operations (helping students attain reading proficiency, which is critical for their future success as well as Ohio’s as a whole) are worth the costs of school bureaucratization. Indeed, given how unhealthy many public-school organizations are, Governor DeWine and Ohio policymakers’ micromanagement may have been the best option for Ohio in the short term. But a healthy educational market (e.g., one in which parents and school leaders have easy-to-access information) and well-functioning school organizations that provide administrators with managerial discretion, should lead schools to eventually learn and adopt promising practices as the evidence becomes available—without state mandates.
Perversely, limiting managerial discretion through the accumulation of rules likely makes educational employment less attractive, making it more difficult (and expensive) to attract good school and district leaders. Which in turn means that we may have less talented teachers with inferior judgement and expertise. Which in turn means that the value to policymakers of giving them managerial and instructional discretion declines. And as the competence of school personnel declines, the incentives to micromanage their work—prescribing in detail how superintendents, principals, and teachers should do their jobs—increases. Which makes their jobs less appealing. And round we go.
How to escape the negative feedback loop of political conflict and bureaucratic sclerosis
The political conflict and distrust that feed school bureaucratization are arguably greater today than at any other time in our nation’s history, as local district politics are now enmeshed in state and national politics. The economic and cultural stakes of schooling are high and nearly everyone—advocates and policymakers at the local, state, and national levels—is trying to impose their will by prescribing rigid rules and procedures that public schools must follow. Massive declines in student achievement and attendance since 2020 should make us more focused than ever on making schools effective organizations, but the political incentives to micromanage public schools with ever more red tape is overwhelming.
Despite these trends, I’m optimistic that we can rediscover our focus on creating an environment that encourages effective schools, as opposed to micromanagement through bureaucracy. First, the success of charter schools provides strong evidence that managerial discretion, free from politics, can be a recipe for success. We don’t have to work on faith, as education reformers initially did. Second, the logic of managerial discretion is intuitive to Americans and, particularly, to Ohioans. It’s in our DNA, and the logic of school-level managerial discretion still seems to enjoy bipartisan support. Reminding the voting public and policymakers of this logic from time to time could go a long way, particularly when short-sighted political impulses tempt us to micromanage.
Even with this latent public and political support for minimizing bureaucracy, we likely need “commitment devices” that will prevent policymakers from undermining schools’ managerial discretion when tempted to do so. Such a device could consist of policymakers making a public pledge to delegate managerial discretion to schools, so that limiting that discretion would be more costly for them down the line. It’s like when one declares that they are on a diet or quitting a vice, hoping that this heightens the social consequences of failure. But a more formal commitment mechanism is probably necessary. For example, perhaps Ohio legislators could adopt a formal resolution of “one in one out”, which would require them to eliminate a regulation every time they impose a new (worthwhile) one, such as mandating phonics-based education. Indeed, to address the bureaucracy problem, we might start with a “one in two out” approach. These sorts of devices are useful in that they remind all of us of the bureaucracy problem whenever we feel inclined to micromanage.
I encourage folks to read Aaron Churchill’s recent Fordham report that details Ohio regulations ripe for elimination, such as requirements for step-and-lane teacher compensation schedules, cumbersome evaluation procedures for teachers and administrators, and superintendent licensure rules. Importantly, state policymakers are also in a position to limit the extent to which local district politics contribute to dysfunctional school bureaucracies. They can bypass district electoral politics by continuing to nurture the charter sector, as the Ohio General Assembly recently did by increasing funding to public charter schools. And to protect public schools from other political forces that have a vested interest in micromanaging them, they can make another attempt to reform teacher collective bargaining.
Reasons for Optimism in Ohio
The political incentives to micromanage schools are strong. We all feel them as we watch school systems make bad choices that affect our kids and, consequently, our state’s economic prosperity. Fixing the school bureaucracy problem requires restraint, humility, and a long-term perspective. Fortunately, I believe Ohio has the type of leadership that appreciates the problem and possesses the intestinal fortitude to clear the path for school leaders. Their work on Senate Bill 168, which is focused explicitly on reforming education regulation, is a testament to that. I’m just trying to do my small part as a Buckeye to provide a gentle reminder of the value of restraint when it comes to regulating the management of our public schools, and to encourage state policymakers to commit to such deregulation through a formal mechanism (e.g., “one in one out”) that will keep this issue on the legislative agenda going forward. When we support the “science of reading” mandate, we must acknowledge the tradeoff we are making. The mandate will likely improve education for the average student and, thus, benefit all Ohioans. But it does contribute to the bureaucracy problem. Our longer-term goal should be to pair these short-term fixes with policies that will create healthier school organizations in which school leaders have room to manage.
 It was part of a broader “new public management” movement to improve government performance, largely attributed to reforms beginning in the Reagan and Thatcher eras.
 In Ohio, charter schools (called “community schools”) have had a positive impact on student achievement, chronic absenteeism, and suspensions—particularly among students from low-income households, who have struggled most on these dimensions in the wake of the pandemic.
 The assumption in game-theory models is generally that the administrative “agent” has more knowledge than the policymaker about the local “state of the world” and how policies interact with that state to produce policy outcomes. Consequently, if this informational advantage is sufficiently great, there is value in delegating policymaking authority even if the agent might deviate somewhat from policymakers’ wishes (e.g., see Bendor & Meirowitz, 2004). If the agent is completely ignorant or incompetent, however, then the logic of delegation can get flipped on its head (e.g., Huber & McCarty, 2004).
 Public administration scholars have long theorized that red tape causes alienation (a feeling of powerlessness and meaninglessness) among public managers, and they have documented that red tape is associated with a reduction in their organizational commitment and job satisfaction.
 It seems intuitive that micromanagement from external actors would make it more difficult to recruit and retain effective district and school leaders, but there are also downstream consequences since managers play a central role in recruiting and retaining school personnel. For example, research shows that effective principals are better able to retain good teachers. The managerial constraints imposed by collective bargaining agreements are largely meant to protect teachers from school and district leaders—and, ostensibly, make it easier to recruit teachers—but I have yet to see convincing evidence that union-induced bureaucracy contributes to healthier school organizations that attract good teachers. Experiments reveal that teachers value pecuniary benefits (e.g., effective teachers are attracted to schools with performance pay) and supportive principals (who help them address student misbehavior) more than many of managerial constraints imposed in collective bargaining agreements.
 I thank Aaron Churchill for reminding me of the elegance of this solution.