Public bureaucracies were created historically to implement legislation through delegated power in all types of political regimes, whether democratic, monarchic, republican, or dictatorial. Beginning with the large bureaucracies of ancient Egypt and China, and typical of all subsequent bureaucracies, such as those of imperial Rome, the bureaucracy of Charlemagne that consolidated and centralized France, and the modern bureaucracies of nation-states, they have been structured and charged with the tasks of carrying out law through direct provision of services or their funding and/or regulation, including providing educational programs or varying degrees of funding and regulation of private schools and homeschooling.

Characteristics of Bureaucracy

Bureaucracies have taken a number of forms. The Anglo-Saxon tradition (represented by Westminster systems and the United States) follows a more pragmatic style of public administration, whereas many Western European jurisdictions have developed a legalistic style of bureaucratic practice, and the former Soviet bloc uses a command system. One of the most significant features differentiating these traditions is the qualification of legal training in the Western European states, where the vast majority of higher bureaucratic ranks require a law degree.
Legal characteristics are embedded in the most influential model of bureaucracy, that of Max Weber (1864–1920). Based on individual value orientations— the affective, traditional, higher-order valuational, and instrumental—types of social action collectively produce group and organizational forms. The instrumental value orientation produces a legal-rationalism that in turn creates the bureaucratic style of organization as an analytic, or ideal, type that is used to examine empirical cases. Where this type of value dominates social action, organizations take on a dominant bureaucratic ethos and mentality.
Its seven characteristics are typical of modern legal practice:
  1. Fixed and official jurisdictional areas are ordered by rules, that is, laws and administrative regulations.
  2. Hierarchy and a formal division of responsibility produce levels of graded authority where lower offices are supervised by higher ones, generating stratified relations of obedience that are governed by rights of supervision and appeal.
  3. Management is based on official documents, that is, written records.
  4. Officials qualify through thorough and expert training and are assigned to specialized areas of labor delimited by competence.
  5. Full-time, salaried work of officials leads to a lifetime career.
  6. Management follows rules, which produces legal accountability and standardized procedures.
  7. Duties are based on impersonal criteria.
While an official must exercise judgment and skills, duty requires that these are placed at the service of a higher authority, and responsibility lies only in the impartial execution of assigned tasks; personal judgment should be sacrificed if it runs counter to duties.

Educational Bureaucracy

The educational public bureaucracy includes many levels of government and local agencies, depending upon national configurations of the educational system, extending directly from federal departments of education to provincial or state departments and on through regional and local levels to the individual school. Each is charged with areas of legal responsibility over education from preschool to postsecondary education. Among the areas in which school officials are required to take a bureaucratic approach to making schools operate more efficiently as environments wherein children can learn better are reporting cases of suspected child abuse, seeking to eliminate sexual harassment whether by school personnel or peers, providing special education for eligible children, and working within the parameters of the Fourth Amendment when engaged in searches of students and their property.
Less direct governmental activity is carried out by central agencies, such as finance departments, treasury board staff, and presidential or prime ministerial offices that establish legislative provisions and policy directions or determine levels of funding in the educational sector. Included in the bureaucratic landscape are also agencies that provide research funding, professional unions or associations, and government auditing offices.
Indirect public services that complement educational activities are policing, the judiciary, social services, and health services. In addition, political and social values, such as equality and freedom from discrimination, are enforced through constitutional and other legislative provisions, and there are special provisions for students with disabilities; these are administered through bureaucratic agencies, often creating an expansion, complexity, and centralization of bureaucracy.
An important feature of the educational system in its bureaucratic form is that loose coupling becomes greater the further one descends down the hierarchy, leading to greater degrees of administrative discretion and the role of the informal organization. Loose coupling was introduced by Weick as a concept describing the relationships among actors and between individual schools and their superordinate organization as less coordinated and less regulated than in higher levels of the educational bureaucracy and other sectors, in part due to the professionalism of teaching staff. With loose coupling, many approaches or means can achieve the same effect.
While these organizational characteristics can make bureaucratic systems in schools more difficult to change, at the same time, they provide the advantage for greater stability, adaptability to changing conditions, and responsiveness to the environment, as well as greater self-determination by school actors. These greater degrees of freedom also express educational values that are contrary to the bureaucratic, primarily emotional, and higher-order values. To some extent, loose coupling has been reduced through accountability systems that were introduced through the New Public Management regime in Western public sector systems. This has introduced practices from the economic and business realm, leading to a commodification of education that many call the corporatization and commercialization of education. In most cases, legislative change was required to allow schools to operate on a revenue generation basis.

Related Problems

The critique of bureaucracy as it is relates to education law includes a number of concerns, beginning with Weber’s theories of disenchantment (Entzauberung) and the iron cage (stahlhartes Gehäuse), which are regarded as problems of modernity. Disenchantment occurs when a materialization of the mind expressed through bureaucratization results in its control and the coercion of everyday life, producing the dead machine of bureaucracy. The result is the iron cage of modernity, where the purely technically good becomes the ultimate and unique value, operating through a legal-rational, bureaucratic administration and welfare system, exacerbated by high degrees of technologization.
What was of most practical significance to Weber in evaluating the consequences of a fully technically rationalized world is whether utter dehumanization, a loss of freedom (Freiheitsverlust), and a loss of meaning (Sinnverlust) are the end result. Through an examination of the historical development of mass society, Weber was concerned about the inherent dilemmas of bureaucratization and democratization, which are opposed processes in terms of values, exacerbated by an intensification of systems of rationality through science and technology. Bureaucratization results in the perversion of means and ends so that means become ends in themselves, and the greater good is lost sight of, resulting in bureaucracies that become increasingly self-serving and corrupt, rather than serving society.
Through the bureaucratization of social institutions such as education, individual freedom, creativity, and responsibility may become constricted and even replaced by impersonal, repetitive, anonymous practices characteristic of legal-rational thinking. This general concern was formulated by Weber as a question about the fate of liberty in conditions of advanced capitalism; the question is pursued in his political writings as a problem of preserving conditions for individual freedom where large-scale organizations dominate: How can this by reconciled with the political franchise of excluded groups, and how can the quality of political leadership be ensured?
The greatest problems for education and its legal requirements probably lie in the field of bureaupathology, which encompasses a broad range of dysfunctions on individual, structural, and functional levels, typical of bureaucratic-style organizations. Individual limitations include employing a functionalist mentality that treats others as impersonal objects, suspending common sense and moral judgment to conform to written policies and procedures, and developing overspecialization and an obsessive concern for technical details at the expense of overall values and goals. Structural problems of a bureaucracy most commonly are overly complex hierarchies that inhibit action, such as red tape; lack of coordination; inherent contradictions; and the omission of some offices in the decision-making process. On a functional level, calcification can take the form of rigidity in procedures, delaying or even blocking decision making; an inability to adapt old procedures to new circumstances; a disregard for dissenting opinions; and groupthink. Related problems include corruption, nepotism, and responsibility avoidance.
Overbureaucratization has the effect of replacing administrator and professional judgment, taking up time, and reducing professional creativity. It also absorbs financial resources and stands in the way of removing ineffective or incompetent staff by overcomplicating the disciplinary process. Debureaucratization, most associated recently with the New Public Management ideology popular since the early 1980s, has been attempted in the educational sector by such measures as reducing preparation for inspections and removing multiple bidding processes for funding, postinspection plans, and requirements for annual reports and meetings.
Eugenie Angele Samier

See also Disabled Persons, Rights of; Fourteenth Amendment; Sexual Harassment
Further Readings
  • Delaney, J. (2006). Legal dimensions of education: Implications for teachers and administrators. Calgary, AB, CA: Temeron Books.
  • Jowell, J. (1975). Law and bureaucracy: Administrative discretion and the limits of legal action. New York: Dunellen.
  • Mommsen, W. (1974). The age of bureaucracy: Perspectives on the political sociology of Max Weber. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.
  • Rizzi, B. (1984). The bureaucratization of the world. New York: Free Press.
  • Smyth, J. (Ed.). 1989. Critical perspectives on educational leadership. London: Falmer Press.
  • Weber, M. (1968). Economy and society: An outline of interpretive sociology. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Weick, K. (1976). Educational organizations as loosely coupled systems. Administrative Science Quarterly, 21, 1–9.