Recent Research on Intergovernmental Relations in Education Policy

Michael W. Kirst
Stanford University

The history of intergovernmental relations in educa­tion policy has been dominated by regulations, categorical programs, and technical assistance by higher levels of government to stimulate or require lower levels to make changes in policy and practice. There have been many metaphors to depict education pol­icy within intergovernmental relations including marble cake or picket fence. The marble cake metaphor recognizes that the federal, state, and local levels are not distinct, and policy spills over from one level to another. The picket fence metaphor is based on categorical programs like Title I or special education whereby the federal and state levels try to mandate or stimulate specific local programs. Each picket in the fence includes administrators (e.g., vocational education) at all levels of government, and auditors to en­sure that federal/state funds are spent within a separate picket.

Intergovernmental policies have more to do with legiti­mating change or structure than with the nature of teaching or classroom practice. A useful metaphor is that of an "ecology of games" that are largely separate, but which do interact and provide inputs to each intergovernmental unit. For example, there is a state legislative game, a state administrative game, a district and school administration game, and a teaching game. Each game has separate players, rewards, and inputs to other games, and each provides outcomes to other games. Programs from higher levels are just one of many influences on the local school district and classroom game. State programs interact with local demands, local taxes, and needs of local board mem­bers, local employees, and community groups.

Winning the local game for some players focuses on ob­taining state categorical and general aid to create more local programs. But many local administrators are not par­ticularly rewarded in the intergovernmental game, so they tend to tune out signals from the state or federal levels. Teachers see their successes in terms of student learning or just getting through the day. The publicity surrounding the passage of an omnibus state or federal reform package is not central to teachers' lives. Consequently, the research highlights the limited influence of intergovernmen­tal policy on classroom practice.

This ecology of games in education policy is one appro­priate concept for the succession of attempts by higher lev­els of government to leverage and change lower levels. It is easier to use state regulatory policies to influence adminis­trators at the local level rather than change classroom teaching. Some state policies employ mandates that outrun the state's existing technology and capacity at local class­ room levels. For example, attempts to require business­-oriented budget systems like Program Planning and Man­agement by Objectives have left scant residue at the local level. In sum, each governmental level tries to maximize its sphere of influence by seizing opportunities or rejecting higher level policies.

This article was originally published in Education Researcher by SAGE Publications.

Suggested citationKirst, M. W. (1995, December). Recent research on intergovernmental relations in education policy [Article]. Policy Analysis for California Education.