ERIC Identifier: ED321368
Publication Date: 1990-00-00
Author: Bowers, Bruce C.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Educational Management Eugene
State Efforts To Deregulate Education. ERIC Digest
Series Number EA 51.
"To sum it up, the governors are ready to do some old fashioned horse-trading.
We'll regulate less if schools and school districts will produce better
results" (National Governors' Association 1986). With these words Tennessee
Governor Lamar Alexander set the tone four years ago for what now appears
to be a major thrust by states to improve the quality of public education-deregulation.
In so doing these states are reversing a trend that, in the words of at
least one commentator, has resulted in public schools being "the most regulated
enterprise in the United States" (Ohio Education 2000 Commission 1989).
WHAT IS MEANT BY "DEREGULATION" IN THE PUBLIC SCHOOL CONTEXT?
Public schools are governed by an intricate network of rules, regulations,
and policies emanating from federal, state, and local levels. Proponents
of deregulation are not advocating that this network be done away with
in toto. Rather, they are suggesting that some regulations may be operating
to the detriment of effective schooling in some situations.
For example, most schools must meet detailed state mandates regarding
number of days per school year, number of hours per day, textbooks to be
used, and teacher certification requirements. Such regulations have been
introduced to meet perceived needs at the time, but they may also "stifle
the creativity and effectiveness of the individual teacher, administrator
and school" (Ohio 1989). When regulations appear to stifle, rather than
promote, innovative approaches, then it is time to reevaluate their function.
While the original deregulation impetus came from the federal level
under the Reagan Administration, the focus of this discussion is on the
more recent efforts by states to waive regulations for the purpose of improving
educational outcomes. Whereas federal regulations pertain to federally
funded programs emanating primarily from the civil rights legislation of
the 1960's, state regulations, which govern the day-to-day operation of
the schools, go to the very heart of public education in America. When
a state decides to remove, even partially, its regulatory function over
education, the potential for radical change at the local level is vastly
HOW ARE STATES DEREGULATING EDUCATION?
To date more than twenty states have adopted some form of regulation-relief
legislation (Olson 1990). The prevailing philosophy behind most of the
legislation is that deregulation is to be offered as a reward to those
districts that have proved, within the existing regulatory framework, that
they can produce superior quality education.
For example, in South Carolina, under a law passed in June 1989, the
top 10 percent of schools have been automatically released from a number
of state regulations governing staffing, class scheduling, and class structure.
Schools became eligible for automatic waivers "if, during two of the previous
three years, their students' gains on two sets of standardized tests place
them in approximately the top quarter of schools with similar socioeconomic
characteristics; if students in their remedial programs met minimum testing
requirements; if they exhibited no recurring accreditation deficiencies;
and if their test scores improved annually at above average rates" (Flax
Not all states have adopted this philosophy, however. For example, North
Carolina, in contrast to its southern sister state, has opted for the incentive
approach to deregulation. Under its School Improvement and Accountability
Act, passed in August 1989, all districts choosing to participate will
be given lump sums of state aid rather than amounts specifically earmarked
for particular programs or resources. In addition, the State Board of Education
may, upon request, "waive regulations concerning class size, teacher certification,
assignment of teacher assistants, and use of state adopted textbooks" (Bradley
On the other hand, North Carolina will not honor all requests for waivers.
Participating districts must submit to the state for approval a local school-improvement
plan that specifies three- to five-year goals for student performance,
as well as annual milestones the district will use to measure progress
in meeting them. Thus, while all districts have equal opportunity to participate
initially in a deregulation process, each district will be evaluated annually
across a number of indicators, and only those meeting criterion on 75 percent
of those indicators will be permitted to continue in the program.
WHAT ISSUES CONFRONT THE DEREGULATION MOVEMENT?
Two major issues, one practical and one philosophical, confront the
movement to deregulate the public schools. The practical issue is that,
for all the legislative fanfare around the offering of regulation waivers
to deserving schools and school districts, there have been surprisingly
few takers. The reasons for this are not entirely clear, but one observer
(Olson 1990) has concluded that they fall into at least three categories.
First, many local administrators are just plain skeptical about how
committed states will remain over the long haul to the deregulation movement.
They are waiting to see whether this isn't just another temporary fad among
Second, a state-driven deregulation movement ignores a powerful source
of regulation at the local level not subject to state edict: the teacher
bargaining agreement. A completely thorough deregulation movement must
be able to persuade the local teacher union to rescind hard-won provisions
in the contract if they stand in the way of improving educational outcomes.
The final, and perhaps most startling, impediment to deregulation is
the sheer lack of imagination on the part of district personnel regarding
potential alternatives to existing practices. For example, in San Diego,
forty-eight schools are engaged in what they would like to think are qualitatively
different ways of approaching public education. But, according to Hugh
Boyle, president of the San Diego Teachers Association, "A lot of what
is going on is not restructuring, it's modifying the way we do things"
(Olson 1990). Simply increasing a district's flexibility may not be sufficient
to promote innovation. States may also need to provide access to new ideas
through workshops, onsite consulting, and the like.
On a philosophical level, the issue is whether, even if current deregulation
efforts are successful, the end result is really the sought-after improved
educational outcome. Since the majority of state deregulation programs
are tying waivers to such outcome measures as student scores on standardized
achievement tests, one may wonder with Susan Fuhrman (1989) whether such
"narrow measures of student performance fail to capture the complexity
of schooling and learning." For example, she adds, "They may direct school
personnel to concentrate on factors that are not related to local learning
goals and, in fact, deflect attention from such goals." While this issue
is more thoroughly addressed in an earlier Digest (Bowers 1989), it deserves
mention here as an example of the difficulties facing any educational improvement
effort that ties incentives or rewards to the results of standardized testing.
WHAT IS THE PROGNOSIS FOR THE CONTINUED EXPANSION OF STATE-LEVEL
It appears that a major stumbling block to the practical implementation
of state-level deregulation legislation is the dearth of suggested alternatives
to the existing educational system. As Fuhrman points out, this "lack of
vision" problem, while critical, may only be temporary. After all, deregulation
is only one facet of a much larger, more all-encompassing school restructuring
movement. Should this movement continue to build momentum, it ought to
yield more concrete alternatives to the status quo. Thus, the current vacuum
of ideas that may be behind the under-whelming response of districts to
voluntary deregulation may soon reverse itself, as innovations become more
widely available and establish credibility.
Certainly not all regulations are barriers to innovation. Indeed, many
are in place to protect the basic health, safety, and human rights of students,
as well as to ensure the smooth daily functioning of the educational enterprise.
At the same time, if our nation's schools are to retain the flexibility
necessary to respond to the rapidly changing world of knowledge, then they
must be given a certain degree of freedom from regulation. Finding the
appropriate balance between autonomy and regulation is a challenge that
may never be fully met, but it is one that continually must be raised.
Bowers, Bruce C. "Alternatives to Standardized Educational Assessment."
Eugene, OR: ERIC Clearinghouse on Educational Management, 1989. ERIC Digest
number 40. 4 pages. ED 312 773.
Bradley, Ann. "N.C. Schools Draft Reform Plans to Gain Flexibility."
Education Week IX, 14 (December 6, 1989): 16.
Flax, Ellen. "S.C. Board Adopts Regulatory Relief for Top-Scoring Schools."
Education Week IX, 12 (November 22, 1989): 1, 16.
Fuhrman, Susan. "Diversity Amidst Standardization: State Differential
Treatment of Districts." Paper presented at the Conference on Choice and
Control in American Education, University of Wisconsin, Madison, May 17-19,
1989. 25 pages. ED 315 903.
Mann, Dale. "It's Time to Trade Red Tape for Accountability in Education."
Executive Educator 12, 1 (January 1990): 26-28. EJ 400 574.
National Governors' Association. RESULTS IN EDUCATION: 1989. The Governors'
1991 Report on Education." Washington, DC: NGA, 1986. 78 pages. ED 313
National Governors' Association. "State Actions to Restructure Schools:
First Steps." Washington, DC: NGA, 1990. 43 pages. ED number not yet assigned.
Ohio Education 2000 Commission. "Game Plan for National Championship
for Ohio's Public Schools: A Report to Governor Richard F. Celeste." Columbus:
Ohio State Office of the Governor, 1989. ED 315 875.
Olson, Lynn. "Unexpectedly Little Interest Found in State Offers to
Waive Key Rules." Education Week IX, 29 (April 11, 1990): 1,19.