Together with his co-editor, College of William & Mary professor Paul Manna, McGuinn launched his new book in Washington, D.C., on March 22.

The problem is long in the making.

Many of the school reforms enacted during the last 25 years have not worked, and that’s because America’s public schools operate under a broken system. Because public schools are accountable to so many masters, administration of our public schools is fragmented, bureaucratic, politicized and often outdated. So says political science professor Patrick McGuinn, co-editor of a new book, Educational Governance for the Twenty-First Century: Overcoming the Structural Barriers to School Reform, funded by two Washington, D.C. think tanks and published by Brookings Institution Press.

With the federal government and the states piling on educational mandates, individual schools have lost much of their power. “The feds have goals, the states have goals and people in localities have goals. We give everybody a little power to act on their agenda, but nobody’s goal is realized,” says McGuinn, a onetime high school teacher with a master’s in education policy and a PhD in government. “Who would want to be a principal today?”

The book traces principles of school governance back to their roots in the 19th century. “Today the United States continues to govern its schools based on principles and institutions, particularly the local school board, that were developed during the Progressive Era of the early 20th century,” McGuinn writes.

The contributing authors offer a mix of ideological perspectives. They describe governance arrangements that have worked well abroad and in individual districts here. But they offer up no silver bullet, and none exists, according to McGuinn.

“Part of our point is to say there is no single answer. We know we can do better. We have lots of high-performing models, like Union City, N. J.,” a poor district whose students have registered striking gains, he says. “We can look at New Orleans, which is getting a lot of attention, or Finland,” whose students rank first globally. “The challenge is finding the secret sauce. It’s different in every place, although some of the ingredients are the same.”—Mary Jo Patterson