Principles of Municipal School Administration

ARISTOTLE is said to have collected the constitutions of a hundred ancient republics, and from the study of these to have developed the principles of an ideal republic. The writer can attempt nothing so ambitious ; but the method employed by Aristotle is the right one, — induction from experience; and by comparative study of the constitutions of many educational republics we may formulate certain principles in regard to the best form of organization.

The school systems in our cities have come down to us from a relatively distant past, and in most cases they remain to-day what they were twenty-five or perhaps fifty years ago. The administrative machinery represents the accretion of years of widening functions; it is cumbrous and complex, not adapted to new conditions and present needs. Thus it has come to pass that in many cities in this country there is dissatisfaction with the school organization. In some there has been waste of public money, in some there has been shameful neglect of the schoolhouses, in others there has been division of authority, — the school department has often been at cross-purposes with the municipal government, and in case of defect or mismanagement it has been difficult to fix the responsibility. In still others, notably Philadelphia and San Francisco, there has been gross corruption, and the sacred office of the teacher has been sold for money or for political favor. As a result of these evils many cities have already radically changed their school systems, other cities are trying to do the same; and the problem of the best form of municipal school administration has become one worth studying.

The old systems of school organization teach many important lessons. And during the last ten years new systems have been tried in Cleveland, Toledo, Indianapolis, New Haven, New York, Rochester, Baltimore, San Francisco, St. Louis, and elsewhere, and radically new systems have been proposed for Boston, Chicago, and Providence. Each of these new systems has certain good features; each has been advocated by intelligent, experienced, and honest men. Which is best ? The only satisfactory answer must come from experience. The true test of any system is its practical working. Now although experience in this country has been too short to give any complete answer to this question, and more experimentation will be necessary before the ideal can perhaps even be described, still it does seem possible to formulate a few general principles by which to judge the character of any form of school administration.

The points upon which there is probably a general consensus of those who have studied the facts may be summed up under ten heads, representing merely a formulation of what seem to be the teachings of experience thus far. As soon as we have more experience they may be modified, but they are what might be called, without lack of reverence, the decalogue for the immediate future:—

1. Any system of school administration should be economical. All doubtless agree upon this point. The people’s money should not be wasted.

2. Any system of school administration should be free from party politics and political methods. It is absurd, for example, to suppose that a man will make a good member of a school board because he happens to be a democrat or a republican. As long as the school administration remains a part of city politics, so long it will be impossible to have interest properly centred upon educational needs.

An editorial in the Detroit Free Press of March 15 of this year, describing the condition in that city, presents perhaps the typical situation where party politics rule. “ The affairs of the board,” says the writer, “ are in a most deplorable condition.... In addition, the manners, customs, and laws of the board have approached the proportions of a public scandal. The board has neither dignity, nor average intelligence, nor business methods. It has made itself simply an arena in which tumultuous pothouse politicians fight with one another for the spoil of the office. Membership on the board has long been treated merely as a step toward political advancement, like the chairmanship of the ward committees or membership in the city or county committee. Few members of the board care a flip of a copper for the general interests of the public school system. The schools are considered only as a means to an end, and the funds of the board are freely disbursed for the payment of political debts contracted by the inspectors, or so disposed as to insure the greatest possible political advantage in the future. . . . Superintendent Martindale recently taunted the board with the fact that the applicant with the ‘ pull ’ always got the position, and not an inspector dared deny the charge.”

3. A system of school administration should be of such a character as to stimulate and not check the local feeling of interest and responsibility for education. This is a principle of wide application. It concerns many other educational matters as well as that of school administration. Whenever money, for example, is given for school purposes without regard to this principle the result is likely to be bad. In the middle of the last century, for illustration, Connecticut received money from the sale of western lands which to a large extent supported her schools. This was distinctly a disadvantage to education, and the state superintendent a few years ago reported that when the money from this source was at a maximum the condition of education in that state was at its lowest ebb. This money pauperized the community because it checked the local feeling of interest and responsibility; and this is perhaps one cause of the degeneration recently reported in the rural districts of that state. Any form of state aid, too, like that proposed by the old Blair Bill, is likely to defeat its own end if this principle is not regarded. The efficiency of the schools must rest in the last resort upon the vigilance of the citizen. And any system that weakens the feeling of personal responsibility is so far destroying its own foundation.

4. A school system should be free from artificial limitations. There should be, for example, no distinctions as regards sex in school matters. Women should be allowed to vote on matters relating to the schools and to hold school offices. Any distinction with regard to sex, or race, or religion, is an artificial limitation. Again, election of members of a school board by wards is an artificial limitation. The city or township is the natural political unit; the ward is an artificial unit. Men living in one ward are very apt to do business in another; they often have more acquaintances in some other ward than in their own. They may be much nearer the schools of another ward than to those in their own; and, as the division is an artificial division, any ward system of election is an artificial limitation.

5. Any system of school administration to be efficient must be adapted to the community where it exists. The needs of one community differ from those of another; and more important still, the local traditions and customs differ; and, finally, different communities represent different stages of civic development. It is useless to have a system of school administration so far beyond the public opinion of the citizens that they cannot be made to appreciate and support it. For a community in a low stage of civic development the paradox may be true that a poorer system is the better one. There is practically little danger, however, of getting a system too far beyond the stage of development of the people. It should be considerably in advance, because it always has an educating influence; and for this reason whenever possible it is usually wise to force an improved system on a backward community.

6. The school system should be, as far as possible, independent of the municipal government. It should be autonomous, having full power, and responsible only to the people. The importance of this has been sufficiently shown by the experience of those cities that have had such independent school departments; and the evils of divided authority have been still more frequently shown by experience.

President Draper goes so far as to maintain that the complete separation of school administration from municipal business is imperative. “Laws,” he writes, “which put the schools at the mercy of a board of aldermen are unsound in principle and deplorable in their operation. Even the determination of the sum to be levied for school purposes should not be left to a common council, which, by legislation and by usage, has come to represent, and has become representative of, interests not in harmony or sympathy with school administration. If there is a finance board or tax commission which receives estimates from all sources and finally determines the amount to be levied, it is not so objectionable that the school estimates should go with the others to this board, for such a board may be assumed to be independent of all special interests and representative of the best sentiment of the whole city. But the only sound rule is that school administration shall be entirely independent of municipal business. The two do not rest upon the same foundation; the power which manages each proceeds from entirely different sources, and the objects and purposes of each have nothing in common.” 1

7. Other things being equal, the work of the school board will be more efficient the smaller the number of its members. Experience in politics and business has amply shown the advantage of having small bodies of men for the management of complicated and important affairs; and the experience in Cleveland, Indianapolis, New Haven, and in several other cities, has shown the advantage of small school boards in the management of educational affairs. The number must depend largely on the size of the city, but the smaller the number consistent with adequate representation of the different classes and social interests of the community and adequate management of the work of the board the better.

There seems now to be a general tendency to reduce the number of members. A typical opinion is that of Mr. Cushing, president of the Boston School Board. In an address reported in the daily papers of March 16 of this year he mentioned among the conditions necessary for the best results: —

“A board of about nine members. Larger boards are handicapped by arguing and wire-pulling among members who strive to please the people who elect them. Small boards can transact business ‘ at closer quarters.’

“More time and investigation should be devoted to choosing the members before nominations are made Nine suitable men should require as many months of careful search.... At present such are nominated in practically as many days. ”

The advantages of the small school board are obvious. In the first place, it is easier to find seven honest and capable men with leisure to devote to public affairs than it is to find twenty-five; and it is not only easier to find competent men and more probable that such will be elected, but the small board is better even if composed of bad men, because it is easier to fix responsibility, and with more simple machinery there is less opportunity to cover up jobbery and corruption. The objection is often made that the small board is undemocratic. The number of officials, however, has nothing to do with the democracy of a system. If this were so, then a board of seventy-two like that in some Pennsylvania cities would be more democratic than a board of twentyfive ; but that system is most democratic which is nearest the people and most directly and efficiently serves to carry out the will of the people. The small board has been found to do precisely this ; and the large board, on the other hand, with its complicated machinery offers ready means for thwarting the will of the people. It is true, however, that the board should not be too small to represent different classes and different social interests.

8. The executive officers under any system of school administration should be experts. The executive functions are threefold : first, care of the business affairs of the school; second, supervision of the educational affairs ; third, inspection of sanitary conditions and care for the health of the school-children. In a town or small city these three functions are likely to be united in one person. In a large city there should be three officials, with duties distinctly defined by law, and each of these should be an expert. In the proposed hill for Boston it is distinctly stated that “ no person shall be eligible to be chosen to the position of business director unless he holds a degree as architect or engineer from an institution empowered from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to confer degrees, or from an institution of similar rank outside the state, or is approved as competent for such position by the Boston Society of Architects and the Master Builders’ Association of Boston.” 2 It is equally important that the other two executive officers should be experts. When a health inspector is appointed it will of course be imperative that he should furnish evidence of his expert knowledge by the possession of a medical degree or the like; and the time is likely to come when no one will be eligible to the position of city superintendent who has not a degree or certificate from some recognized authority which is prima facie evidence of his expert character in educational matters.

9. So far as is practicable, civil service principles should prevail in regard to the teaching body and school officials. If the superintendent do not serve during good behavior, as in Cleveland, then he should be appointed for a long term of four or five years, as in Indianapolis and New Haven; and teachers also should feel secure in their tenure of office as long as efficient work is done.

10. There should be concentration of power and responsibility. The validity of this principle has also been amply shown by the experience of Cleveland and many other cities. This involves separation of the legislative and executive functions, and likewise separation of educational executive functions from the business executive functions. The importance of this has been recognized by the Chicago Commission,3 and by many educators.

These, then, are some of the general principles apparently demonstrated by experience thus far. Any system of school administration should be (1) economical; (2) free from politics; (3) of such a character as to stimulate and not check the local feeling of interest and responsibility for education; (4) free from artificial limitations, —limitations as regards sex, race, religion, or election of officers; (5) adapted to the community where it exists; (6) independent of the municipal government;

(7) the school board should be small;

(8) the executive officers should be experts ; (9) civil service principles should prevail; (10) there should be concentration of power and responsibility.

These principles should all be taken together; they are interrelated. We began by noting that the school administration should be economical; we closed by noting that there should be concentration of power and responsibility. Now it is quite impossible to have economy without having concentration of power and responsibility. Experience in all large business affairs has shown the advantage of placing the management in the hands of a few capable men with great power and large responsibility. The management of school affairs is a large business involving in a city of 100,000 inhabitants an expenditure of probably $500,000 annually; the same business principles adopted in modern industry should be employed here; and experience in school administration in cities that have followed this principle indicates the great advantage of it. The evil of the ordinary plan of large boards and divided authority is obvious when we reflect on what would be the result of a similar policy in the management of any large business. Where the power and responsibility for the management are vested in a small body of directors and in a single executive officer business methods can be followed in school matters. The director can buy in the cheapest market because he buys in large quantities and at the most favorable time. He can forecast the future and often make large savings. He can in many matters by immediate extravagance save large sums in the end. For example, in the heating and ventilating of large school buildings experience has shown that it is much cheaper — Mr. Morrison, an expert on ventilation, says about nine times cheaper — to have a mechanical system of heating and ventilating rather than a natural system, although the initial cost of the plant is greater; but if money can be saved by spending a little more at first, business common sense makes that wise. Again in making contracts for land and the like, great saving may be effected by adopting business methods. The town of Andover, Mass., a few years ago bought a tract of land in the heart of the village, paying some $10,000 for it, although having no immediate need for the land whatever, but simply forecasting the future. And in St. Louis such foresight is reported under the new system in that city.

Without concentration of power and responsibility, with the ordinary large school board and its cumbrous machinery of special sub-committees of various kinds, it is impossible to exercise economy in large matters, and there is opportunity for jobbery of all kinds; and if a defective schoolhouse or the like is built nobody knows who is responsible.

Again our first principle is dependent upon our second. A school system can hardly be economical if it is political. The great advantage of taking the administration of the schools out of party politics, even to the extent of having a bi-partisan board, has been admirably shown in St. Louis during the five years of its experience under its new form of school administration. Professor Woodward writes:4

“ In a general way good management has resulted in vast and unexpected savings to the schools. . . .

“ Ordinarily repairs cost about twice as much per year under the old plan as under the present plan. Under the old plan members of the board were supposed to control repairs and contracts in their respective districts. The result was high prices, false measurements, and poor work ...a day’s work often covered less than three hours of real work, and so on.

舠 Every janitor was appointed for political reasons and for political efficiency. He was generally a poor janitor, and the premises under his charge suffered from neglect and incompetency.

“ Bids were solicited from approved parties, and prices were exorbitant. . . . Moreover, bills for extras were numerous and large, so that poorly constructed buildings with wooden floors, partitions, and roofs, cost as much per room as they now cost with higher prices for labor, when built fireproof throughout.

“ Every year it is found necessary to buy land for new schoolhouses. The greatest care is taken in determining the location of sites and in securing reasonable offers. This is usually managed through confidential agents, so that no one can take advantage of the board and run up the price. The result is that we purchase at reasonable figures, and usually we purchase far ahead of immediate use.”

Again our second principle is dependent upon our fourth. A system can hardly be free from politics when it is created under the artificial limitations of a ward system. The Philadelphia system with a central board appointed by judges is ostensibly a method of taking school management out of politics; but being subject to the limitations of the ward system in its local boards, it has not escaped political corruption of the worst sort.

The worst scandals connected with the administration of the public schools have arisen in connection with this ward system. Professor Salmon in a recent article 5quotes the words of a citizens’ committee of one of our cities which reports: “ The natural tendency is for the holders of places on the board to be governed by considerations of ward politics rather than by the interests of the schools at large. This is not theory; at present janitorships are traded off, and even principalships of schools in certain wards are regarded as the perquisites of representatives of such wards. Buildings are secured for wards by members having the greatest ‘ pull, ’ and other districts are deprived of schools regardless of the needs of such districts. The whole school management becomes a system of trading of ward interests. The school district should be a unit if economical and systematic arrangement is to be possible.”

Except in one or two instances I have not spoken of the concrete questions of school organization. But if I am right in formulating the teachings of experience, the principles mentioned will help in these practical questions. Take a question upon which opinion is divided. Cleveland has a school board elected by the people at large. New Haven has a board appointed by the mayor. Which plan is better ? This question should be considered in regard to several of the principles mentioned, especially in regard to stimulating the local feeling of responsibility for the schools. If it should appear from experience, as I think there are already some indications that it may, that election at large stimulates this feeling of personal responsibility, and that appointment by the mayor tends to lessen this, then the fonner plan has one great advantage over the latter.

Again as regards the executive officers. In Cleveland the business director is elected by the people. In Indianapolis he is appointed by the board. Which plan is better ? If we were right in maintaining that he, as well as the other executive officers, should be an expert, then the Indianapolis plan seems better ; for experience indicates that it is easier to get real expert talent by appointment than by election.

Of the new systems referred to at the beginning of this paper, that of the city of Cleveland is specially instructive because it has a history of ten years, and a fairly good test of its working has already been made. Let us take it as an example and consider it in relation to the principles above formulated.

The Cleveland system of school administration is called the Federal system because it has some features similar to those of our Federal government. It is similar also to the general system of municipal government which has just come to an end in the city of Cleveland, though the school department is distinct from the municipal government. It is independent, autonomous, and responsible only to the people. It levies its own taxes, subject to tine approval of the tax commissioners, and has sole power in the expenditure of all money for school purposes, making its own contracts, and the like.

In 1892 a law was passed by the Ohio legislature which gave the opportunity to try this system. The essential features very briefly are as follows:

First a school council of seven members is elected by the city at large. Each member serves two years and receives a salary of $260. The special functions of this council are legislative. It passes resolutions in regard to levying taxes, the expenditure of school money, the establishment of schools, the approval of contracts. It frames rules and regulations governing the schools. It provides for the appointment of teachers, fixes their salaries, prescribes their duties, and adopts the text-books.

Second, a school director is elected by the city at large for a term of two years, and receives a salary of $5000. His special function is executive; he executes the laws framed by the school council. His functions, however, are confined to business matters, except that he has the power to veto the resolutions of the council. While this director has nothing to do with educational matters, it is a part of his duty to appoint a superintendent in case of vacancy, and he has the power for sufficient cause to remove the superintendent. This appointment of the superintendent is subject to approval and confirmation by the council.

The superintendent is appointed for an indefinite term, that is, during good behavior. His salary is $5000. His function is to attend to all educational matters, and he alone is responsible for such matters. He has full power in the appointment, promotion, and dismissal of all teachers. Since the character of the teacher determines the character of the school and school reform is always schoolmaster reform, this feature deserves special notice.

Such are the essential features of the Cleveland system. If we compare this Federal system with our ten principles, we shall naturally find substantial agreement ; for Cleveland furnished much of the experience which has demonstrated these principles, but we shall also find that it is not ideal. In the first place, while the system has usually been economical, it is liable to occasional brief periods of extravagance when an incompetent or dishonest director is not restrained by an independent council. Further it is not free from politics ; but the choice of two republican and two democratic members of the school council at the last municipal election, April, 1903, when the city went strongly democratic, may be taken as an indication that many of the citizens regard membership in the council as a non-political office. Again the executive officers are supposed to be experts, yet with election of the director by the people he is liable not to have the necessary qualifications.

This system, on the other hand, does apparently stimulate the local feeling of interest and responsibility in education; for when a few years ago the director without cause attempted to remove the superintendent, Mr. L. H. Jones, an able and efficient man, public opinion forced him to recall his letter of dismissal, and at the next election the director was relegated to private life, another man was chosen in his stead, and the superintendent vindicated. The system also is evidently well adapted to the needs of the city of Cleveland, for it receives the approval of intelligent people. A prominent man in that city writes me that he thinks “ the universal verdict among intelligent people is that this arrangement has worked amazingly well at least so far as the educational side of things is concerned; ” and the teachers and superintendents seem to be universally and enthusiastically in favor of it.

This system is for the most part free from artificial limitations, and it is also independent (except for certain financial checks) of the municipal government. The school council, as already noted, is small, and there is great concentration of power and responsibility, the school council being solely a legislative body, the business executive functions being in the hands of the director, and all educational affairs in the hands of the superintendent.

The history of school administration in Cleveland for the last ten years has been extremely interesting. The Federal system represents no vagary of university theorists. It was devised by four citizens of Cleveland, three lawyers and a banker, and thus is quite free from any taint of pedagogical theory. The experiment has been long enough to make a fairly good test of the system and is very instructive. It has especially demonstrated the advantages of concentration of power and responsibility. If anything goes wrong it is possible to know at once who is to blame, and to put a better man in his place. Unfortunately the law under which this system was formed is a kind of special legislation which has recently been condemned in case of the similar municipal government of Cleveland; hence this school system also is liable to be declared unconstitutional, since, in Mr. Dooley’s phrase, the decisions of the Ohio Supreme Court do not follow the election returns of the city of Cleveland.

It is noteworthy that a form of school administration similar to this, with election of a small board by the people at large, and nomination by petition, was advocated at the last meeting of the Department of Superintendence of the National Educational Association in Cincinnati.

It requires no special prophetic vision to foresee that great changes in school administration, especially in our municipal systems, are likely to be made in the near future. A country that in the last twenty-five years has put the majority of Federal offices under the rules of a reformed civil service will not permit the 500,000 school positions to be given over to the spoilsmen. But radical changes are made with difficulty. In case of a municipal system, a change of the city charter and a special act of the legislature are often necessary. Hence in making the much needed changes, it is wise to profit by the experience which has taught us the principles formulated above. Guidance by these principles would save our cities millions of dollars annually, and the increase in the efficiency of the schools would be inestimable.

William H. Burnham.

  1. Draper, Andrew S. Plans for Organization for School Purposes in Large Cities, Educational Review, vol. vi. p. 14. New York. 1893.
  2. Senate Bill, No. 279, April 4, 1899. An Act Relative to the School Committee of the City of Boston.
  3. Report of the Educational Commission of the City of Chicago. 1899.
  4. Quoted by Dr. Engler. See Worcester Telegram, February 3, 1903.
  5. Salmon, Lucy M. Civil Service Reform Principles in Education, Educational Review, April, 1903, pp. 352, 353.