Crisis, Community, and Courts in Network Governance: A Response to Liebman and Sabel’s Approach to Reform of Public Education


In their provocative article, A Public Laboratory Dewey Barely Imagined. The Emerging Model of School Governance and Legal Reform, Professors James S. Liebman and Charles F. Sabel explain, chronicle, and advocate a shift to polyarchic network governance as a way to improve public schools throughout the United States. The authors suggest that networks, seen as a “new form of participatory collaboration between citizens and the agencies of government,” can also help to improve the quality of public education by introducing flexible, best-practice approaches into the classroom. 2 In their most hopeful moments, they consider whether such networks, with their emphasis on monitoring, benchmarking, and reflective practice, can reshape democratic institutions by encouraging pragmatic experimentalism and creating neoMadisonian forms of accountability.

Crisis is key to Liebman and Sabel’s explanation of how such networks come to be formed by otherwise unconnected groups with divergent interests. As they tell it, education professionals, politicians, and parents are increasingly coming to reject dominant educational models that depend either on centralized bureaucratic control or on wholesale privatization. This rejection, converging with demands from all quarters for educational innovation, unglues established power structures and creates public space for stakeholder networks to appear. In this response, we focus on the crucial role of crisis in Liebman and Sabel’s diagnostics and in their prescription for educational policy.

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