Relationships between branches and levels of government are important in the administration and delivery of educational services in all countries. National ministries of education may wish to control all phases of education, but they inevitably must delegate significant aspects of the operation and delivery of educational services to lower levels of government. The more decentralized the governance system, and the more branches and levels of government there are, the more complex intergovernmental relationships may be. But, even in nations with highly centralized approaches to governance, the relationship between the central ministry of education and schools and colleges is important. Any government’s policies are only as effective as their design and implementation permit, and effective implementation is heavily influenced by the character of the relationship that exists between branches and levels of government.
Most nations have a unitary government, which means that the central government holds sovereign power over all lower levels of government. The lower levels of government are subordinate to the national government, which can overrule or even abolish them. By contrast, some nations have adopted federal governance systems, in which power is shared between the national government and state or regional units, which cannot be abolished. These federations with constitutions developed in nations, such as Australia, Canada, Germany, and the United States, where regional differences are important and where former colonies or semiautonomous states banded together out of common interest. In federal systems, education usually is the legal responsibility of the state governments rather than the national government. Still, even in federal systems, national interests in such matters as equality of opportunity and educational adequacy and excellence inevitably cause the national governments to play a role in education.
Whether control over a nation’s government is democratic or autocratic, and whether a unitary or federal system is used, there can be significant variation in the degree to which the government is centralized or decentralized. By definition, one expects decentralization in federal systems, but this is not always the case. For example, until the mid-1980s Australia’s states ran highly centralized statewide education systems in which all but the simplest decisions were made in the state ministries of education in the capitol cities. For the most part, Germany’s states continue to run highly centralized education systems.
Beginning in the 1980s, a reform movement advocating decentralization and much greater decision-making at the school level (school-based management or “self-managing schools”) began to spread across the world, especially the English-speaking world. School-based management sought to restructure the decision-making chain of command by shifting authority from highly centralized bureaucracies to the school site level. New Zealand adopted this approach completely, and some Australian states have moved in this direction. Britain presents a complex and interesting example of these trends. It has reduced the power of the local education authorities (roughly equivalent to American and Canadian school districts) and given schools much more decision-making authority, but the entire system operates under a powerful central government in London. In the United States, more than one-third of all school districts have implemented some version of school-based management, and at least five states�Colorado, Florida, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Texas�have legislated participatory decision-making at each school.
The high degree of decentralization in the structure of educational governance in the United States is unusual. The kind of local control that exists in the United States, through the delegation by states of substantial decision-making power to elected school boards of lay citizens in some 15,000 local school districts, is rare. Most nations have far more centralized arrangements. In European nations, such as France and Germany, civil servants operating within highly bureaucratized agencies or ministries of education tightly control the education system. In these settings, local citizens have little or no voice in decision-making for schools, and a highly professionalized (or at least bureaucratized) cadre of educators hold sway.
The stark contrast between, on the one hand, highly centralized and bureaucratized systems of governance and, on the other hand, decentralized systems that allow for local and lay participation in educational policy-making raises the question of how best to structure the governance of education. Here, it is common to see a tension between competing values. Efficiency, it can be argued, is best served by a centralized system that can better ensure consistent standards throughout a nation than a decentralized system. On the other hand, centralized systems are prone to develop bureaucratic rigidities that can ultimately impede efficiency, not to mention liberty and democracy. Debates about the proper governance of public services, in fact, often seem to revolve around the tension between the competing values of democracy and efficiency. Unfortunately, by themselves neither centralized nor decentralized approaches to government can guarantee either democracy or efficiency.