Entrenched bureaucracies and special-interest politics hamper public education in the United States. In response, school districts and states have recently adopted or promoted reforms designed to release schools from bureaucratic control and empower them to meet strengthened outcome standards. Despite promising results, the reforms have been widely criticized, including by the educationally disadvantaged families they most appear to help.

To explain this paradox, this Article first considers the governance alternatives to bureaucracy that the education reforms adopt. It concludes that the reforms do not adopt the most commonly cited alternatives to bureaucracy—marketization, managerialism, or professionalism/craft— and that none of those models effectively frees public education of special-interest politics.

This Article next argues that another governance and civic engagement model, democratic experimentalism, better explains the reforms and offers an attractive alternative to special-interest politics. This Article finds, however, that the reforms have not effectively implemented the “democratic” part of experimentalism, resulting in backlash from the families the reforms might benefit the most. This Article concludes by proposing a more fully democratic version of the reforms designed to improve student outcomes, powerfully engage key stakeholders, and diminish opposition.

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