The Rules We Play By, Part 2: Who Makes the Rules?

Last Updated: October 29, 2012

This article appeared in the October 2012 Rural Policy Matters.

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"Who Makes the Rules?" is the second in the RPM series "The Rules We Play By," which explores the way public policy affects local schools. You can read Part I here.

In the United States public education is governed at the state level. That does not mean that the federal government has no say in schools. Nor does it mean that local communities have no say. But it does mean that states set the basic framework in which schools operate.

All 50 states have some language, known as the "education clause," in their constitutions that provides for public education. State legislatures on the primary governing bodies that establish the education "rules" for their states.

Within the state framework state and local boards, state departments of education, school district offices, local schools, and, in some states, parent and community organizations have varying levels of responsibility and authority. There's some variation among states, and even within states the question of who's-responsible-for-what can be confusing, especially for parents and community residents not accustomed to working within the education system.

RPM offers the following descriptions to help explain the different level of education governance and responsibility.

State Legislatures. Because American education is vested at the state level, state legislatures are responsible for enacting the laws that govern education. The biggest single responsibility of legislatures in terms of schools is to see that education is funded. Therefore, legislatures enact the laws that determine how revenue is collected for schools and the laws that govern the state's finance system through which revenue is distributed to local school districts.

Legislatures also have the very consequential task of establishing the state's tax policies. State law determines what taxes are collected, whether there are caps or other restrictions on how taxes can be increased, and how tax revenues are allocated in the state budget.

In most states, legislatures are also responsible for enacting laws related to mandatory school age and attendance and length of school year. So, for example, a state may have a law that requires all children to be enrolled in school by the time they are seven years old or requires all schools to hold classes at least 175 days each year.

In many states, legislatures set teacher salary scales (at least for the portion of salary that is covered by state funding). Increasingly, legislatures are also wading into new waters around teacher issues, including tenure and evaluation, pay-for-performance, and bargaining rights.

Legislatures also establish how schools are organized. They may set minimum school sizes or maximum student-teacher ratios, for example. And, they usually govern the state's "choice" options, including charter laws, homeschooling options, private school tax exemptions, and vouchers.

Disputes over state law are generally taken to state courts. Upcoming installments in this series will address how policy is shaped.

Ballot Initiatives. Almost all states have some provision that allows citizens to bring a law directly to the public to be voted on through a process generally referred to as a ballot initiative. Although relatively few laws are made in this fashion, initiatives can be powerful tools for setting policy. See Voters Consider Ballot Initiatives on Education in this issue of RPM for examples of initiatives on state ballots in this election cycle.

State Boards of Education. While state legislatures set the legal framework within which schools operate, State Boards of Education have responsibility for interpreting the law and providing policy leadership to determine how aspects of the state's education law will be implemented. This responsibility generally gives State Boards broad regulatory authority for determining how policies will actually be implemented.

Depending on the state, members of the State Board are elected or appointed or include a mix. State Boards generally establish standards, review and adopt curriculum and statewide assessments, and approve textbooks and other instructional materials. In some states, State Boards are charged with approving charter schools. In some states, they also have authority over some aspects of post-secondary education. In most states, the State Board of Education is responsible for overseeing the State Superintendent of Education.

State Superintendents. State Superintendents of education, also known as commissioners or chief school officers depending on the state, have primary supervisory responsibility for most aspects of K–12 public education. Their duties and responsibilities are spelled out in state law and generally include implementing state laws and State Board policies. In many states Superintendents have significant authority to interpret policy and develop programs. Many State Superintendents recommend programs and policies for Board consideration. In most states, the Superintendent has broad authority to develop programs within policy frameworks, decide controversies, and make and enforce decisions that affect local schools. The State Superintendent is also the head of the State Department of Education.

State Departments of Education. State education departments are in most cases established by state constitutions and their powers and duties are spelled out in state law. These generally include administration of assessments, school/district data collection and management, teacher certification, programs of financial management, and curriculum development. State departments oversee federal programs including special education (IDEA), McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, and Title I and are responsible for making sure programs are managed well at the district level. In some states, Departments of Education largely serve an enforcement role, making sure schools and districts are complying with state requirements. In other states, Departments of Education take a more assistive role, helping schools and districts implement state programs and develop locally-based programs.

Local boards. Local boards of education are generally elected. They are responsible for developing and implementing policy at the local level. In many states local boards are involved in hiring and termination decisions for staff, particularly the local school superintendent. They are also involved in discipline policy, including suspensions and expulsions; development of the district's budgets; and a range of local curriculum and program decisions. In some states, local school boards have taxing authority. Local school boards are the primary means of school governance at the district level.

Local school superintendent. The school superintendent is the chief officer and instructional leader for the school district. Superintendents generally report to and often lead the local school board. In many rural districts, the superintendent also serves in one or more additional roles, roles as varied as principal, teacher, and bus driver.

Local central (district) office. The central office is comprised of the district leaders that implement programs and policy. Central office staff in many districts are responsible for curriculum development; transportation; local administration of and compliance with federal programs; data collection and reporting; professional development for teachers; grant writing and administration; and other duties. In many rural districts, especially those that are small and/or low wealth, central offices are very small and staff may serve multiple roles.

Local school. Depending on the state and the school district, local schools can have considerable authority in establishing policy. In some states, local schools are responsible for hiring and evaluating staff, establishing most school policies, working with parents and local communities, developing curriculum, overseeing student activities, and establishing their schedules. In other states, local schools have much less autonomy.

Federal branches. Although the primary unit of education governance in the U.S. is the state, the federal government, in all three of its branches, plays an important role. Federal courts interpret and enforce constitutional rights, for example Title IX requiring schools to provide equitable sports opportunities for girls. Congress writes and funds the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which is currently known as No Child Left Behind. ESEA includes a number of programs that provide funding to schools and states, including Title I support for students facing severe educational challenges. Congress also writes and funds the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which governs special education. Several federal agencies interpret and implement federal law. Most prominent is the U.S. Department of Education, which implements ESEA, IDEA, REAP (Rural Education Achievement Program) and other programs. The Department also develops programs of its own, for example, Race to the Top and Investing in Innovation (i3). Other federal agencies are also involved in schools. The U.S. Department of Agriculture administers the school lunch and breakfast programs as well as many vocational programs. And other agencies offer voluntary programs for schools.

At each level of policymaking there are usually opportunities for public involvement. Sometimes citizen involvement is mandated through required hearings, citizen oversight committees, or other mechanisms. In almost all cases involving public policy, citizens have the right to information and to opportunities to observe and/or participate in the process in some way.

A policy example: As an example of how these different players are involved in educational policymaking, we will take a quick look at the case of special education.

Congress writes (and updates or re-authorizes) the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) defining what states must do for students with disabilities; Congress also allocates funding to states for special education.

The State Board creates categories of exceptionality and writes the regulations governing the state's special education programs.

The state legislature determines funding levels for schools and how much the state will allocate to districts to supplement federal funding for students with special needs.

The state education department distributes federal funding, oversees special education programs, and enforces regulations.

Local school boards allocate funding among schools. In some states, local boards are also responsible for hiring and assigning special education teachers and approving specific aspects of the district's special education program, for example, where self-contained classrooms will be located or how the district might partner with another district to provide services to students with severe disabilities.

The local central office administers the special education program, works with schools and teachers to implement programs, and distributes resources.

The local school works directly with parents on student placements, school-level discipline, and other issues immediately affecting the student.

Parents are required to participate in and shape meetings and decisions about their special student's educational program. Citizens who have special knowledge about the student may also be asked to participate.

In the next installment of "The Rules We Play By," RPM will examine how policymaking is shaped by public involvement.

Read more:

U.S. Department of Education

National Council of State Legislatures

Council of Chief State School Officers

National Association of State Boards of Education

National School Boards Association


Read more from the October 2012 Rural Policy Matters.

Related Categories: Rural Policy Matters

Related Tags: Education Policy and Activism