International Journal of
Educational Administration and Policy Studies

  • Abbreviation: Int. J. Educ. Admin. Pol. Stud.
  • Language: English
  • ISSN: 2141-6656
  • DOI: 10.5897/IJEAPS
  • Start Year: 2009
  • Published Articles: 215

Full Length Research Paper

Questioning the scholarly discussion around decentralization in Turkish education system

Soner Onder Yildiz
  • Soner Onder Yildiz
  • Turkish Republic Ministry of Education, Turkey.
  • Google Scholar

  •  Received: 15 April 2016
  •  Accepted: 27 June 2016
  •  Published: 31 July 2016


From the beginning of Turkish Republic till date, Turkish Education System (TES) has been steered by a handful of politicians and civil servants, who enjoy maximum centralized authority. Over the years, therefore, centralized management has repeatedly been blamed for the deadlocks hampering progress in the TES. Turkish scholars often seem to find intellectual shelter in extolling decentralization, supposedly the exact opposite of centralization, as a panacea for all the dilemmas facing education. Indeed, in academic writings about the issue, scholars generally refer to decentralization unquestioningly as the transfer of authority and power from the center to the periphery. While there is a prevalent faith among Turkish scholars in the curative characteristics of decentralization, the broader literature suggests that decentralization neither helps solve educational deadlocks nor necessarily means an effective transfer of authority. Moreover, national idiosyncrasies often define the extent and direction of decentralization, as well as its effectiveness, as can be seen in different implementations in several countries throughout the world. On another note, the decentralization discourse centered on the education sector also has direct implications on Turkish politics, since the accusations of dictatorship leveled against the ruling Justice and Development Party (JDP) have been strengthened by its tight grip on policy-making power in education. The following article attempts to build a dual argument, asserting that decentralization is not a solution to the dilemmas facing the TES and that the ruling JDP is no dictator.

Key words: Centralization, decentralization, the ruling JDP government.


The rise of the nation state as a political structure after the French Revolution gave birth to a new discourse that gave the state the function of running a system of education that would create loyal citizens. This idea has prevailed throughout the world and national education systems under the direct control of the state can be found everywhere  (Basar,  1996,  p.  63),  including  in  Turkey. During the early years of Turkish Republic (TR), a minority of intellectuals with power and authority undertook a variety of reforms without engagement with any other stakeholders (Ozsoy, 2009); likewise, a small group of elite civil servants dominated educational policy-making and created a centralized TES.

Although scholars largely agree that, in  the  first  years of the TR, centralized management was desirable; they also consider it one of the major causes of later and current dilemmas in the field (Arslan, 2009; Aypay and Isik, 2006; Can, 1999; Duruhan, 2007; Gulcan, 2008; Ozturk, 2011; Sirin, 2009; Tasar, 2009; Yildirim, 2001; Yirci and Karakose, 2010). The disadvantages associated with centralization, on a managerial level and for the quality of education itself, are cited in the arguments for the implementation of decentralization. For example, some highlight the effects of a lack of teacher autonomy due to the strict, centrally imposed instruction methods and curriculum (Arslan, 2009; Gulcan, 2008; Ozturk, 2011; Yirci and Karakose, 2010). Others give centralized management the blame for a lack of transparency and nepotism, manifested in politicians appointing friends, compatriots, and political sympathizers to high-ranking bureaucratic posts (Aydogan, 2009). At the same time, bureaucrats at the periphery are given a limited authority, but burdened with excessive administrative responsibilities, so lack the time and energy to meet their full potential for contributing to the betterment of the TES (Can, 1999; Tasar, 2009). In the discussions concerning the establishment of quality assurance and accountability in TES, some argue that authority-responsibility balance has been lost in this management structure due to the lack of institutional autonomy in contrast to overly loaded responsibility on the peripheral actors (Bulbul and Demirbolat, 2014; Ince, 2008). Aside from centralization and its drawbacks listed above, the extent of the bureaucratic red tape in the Ministry of National Education (MoNE) is widely seen highly debilitating (Arslan and Atasayar, 2008; Buyukduvenci, 1995; Duruhan, 2007; Turan et al., 2012; Yalcinkaya, 2004). Some contend that bureaucratic ossification in the ministry has reached such an extent that it is not able to fulfill even its basic functions (Ozden, 2005; Silman and Simsek, 2009; Tasar, 2009).

When diagnosing the malady in the body of TES, scholars increasingly rush to identify the cure: decentralization. This trend is so infectious that almost every piece of scholarly writing about the TES includes passages extolling the uncertain blessings of decentralization. For instance, describing centralization as unable to respond the contemporary challenges of the field, Tasar (2009) dreams of reaching global standards through decentralization. Likewise, others list some supposed advantages of decentralization, such as finding solutions to new challenges of the field (Ozdemir, 1996, p. 426), the benefits of student-centered education, better decision-making, multi-channeled communication among all stakeholders, and better educational supervision (Yalcinkaya, 2004).

At the administrative level, scholars identify a number of advantages of decentralization, most notably: more rational educational programs and policies (Arslan and Atasayar,   2008,   p.   60),   a   solution   for  bureaucratic

ossification (Can, 1999; Kurt, 2006), and the better use of human and material resources (Kurt, 2006). Given the desirability of these improvements, scholars certainly have sound reasons for the efforts to build a discourse in support of decentralization.

Problematically, however, a number of scholars move from a conviction that centralization is main culprit to a belief in a direct correlation between decentralization and quality education (Arslan and Atasayar, 2008; Balci, 2000; Tasar, 2009; Yalcinkaya, 2004). This way of thinking takes it as given that the more decentralization in education management, the more quality can be reached.

In their arguments for not only decentralization but also all other dilemmas in TES, scholars rarely mention the political factors, which manifest themselves in all institutional affairs, education being no exception. To be clearer, they seem to ignore the politics on educational policy-making. In this vein, newly presented scholarly writings in Turkey repeatedly prove that scholars ignore this delicate link between education and politics, as they insist on tracing solutions on the black sands of education (Güçlü and Åžanal, 2015; Sağır, 2015). To illustrate, in their studies about an educational journal namely Education Journal (published between the years 1951-1958), Güçlü and Åžanal (2015) expect to shed light on current educational dilemmas through reviewing the subjects such as teaching profession, social and psychological tiers of education, curriculum development etc. from a historical perspective yet again missing the political context of that period at issue. Similarly, skipping the cardinal place of politically caliberation of educational policies, Sağır uselessly recommends –to whom it concerns- that school principals’ voices should be heard in decision-making process.

However, in the more general literature, many argue that most of the solutions for educational dilemmas can be found outside the field of education, particularly in politics and economy (Apple, 2004; Carr, 2005; Cemalcilar and Goksen, 2012). In this regard, Apple (2004, p. vii) argues that, economic, political, and cultural power and its implication for the education system must be included in investigations into dilemmas in education. Similarly, Carr (2005) underscores that philosophical and theoretical studies have to deal with the “political dimension of education” (p. 230). Scholars writing about the TES would do well to heed this advice and dedicate more intellectual energy to investigating how education coalesces with politics.

In order not to make the same mistake, and to ground the discussion, it is necessary to understand the ruling JDP’s view of the state and its role in education. One aim of this article, therefore, is to investigate the implications of this view in the process of decentralization.

It is certainly the case that some scholars criticize the JDP for holding on to central authority and control over all

institutional affairs, including education. They characterize the reign of the JDP as dictatorship, and seek to remind the government of its former promise to implement decentralization in every institution. In this regard, another aim of this article is to trace the discursive roots of the dictatorship label, attributed to the JDP throughout decentralization discussions. To this end, it first goes back to the definition(s) of decentralization and its usage in different contexts, including an examination of whether decentralization is really a better way of managing educational affairs. Moreover, it investigates the JDP’s understanding of the role of the state and its implications for the realization of decentralization in education. It ends with some concluding remarks about the epistemological fallacy clouding the judgments of Turkish scholars.

A complacent discourse: decentralization

It is useful to note that there is no agreed-upon definition of decentralization, but rather divergent conceptuali-zations shaped mainly by scholars’ personal agendas and bias. The following definitions provide ample illustration of this: “the transformation of the education system by forming a new way of schooling with its own vision, mission, and authority” (TaÅŸar, 2009, p. 108); “the autonomization of educationalists and schools” (Arslan and Atasayar, 2008; Çelik, 2011; Mızıkaci, 2011; Öztürk, 2011, p. 1928); “the way to free the education system from the burdens of bureaucracy” (Can, 1999; Kurt, 2006, p. 70); “the financial support of local people and parents to the schools in the provinces” (Balcı, 2000). Despite the diversity of definitions, it should be noted that they all share a common interest in finding ways to improve the TES.

A lack of agreement on a definition for decentralization is also prevalent among Western scholars, who use the term to refer to various trends. According to Aasen (2004), there are two kinds of decentralization: delegation and devolution. While delegation refers to the diffusion of tasks and responsibilities to the periphery as a way of implementing centrally decided policies, devolution implies diffusion of authority and responsibility for decision-making and implementation and the increased independence of local authorities (Aasen, 2004, p. 144).

Rizvi and Lingard go further and identify three kinds of decentralization: (a) “democratic devolution, characterized by enrichment of democratic participation, local control and community decision-making”; (b) “functional decentralization, characterized by the transfer of specific functions of the central government to the local or regional levels”; and (c) “fiscal decentralization, characterized by the transfer of monies and control over funding sources, to local institutions” (Rizvi and Lingard, 2010, pp. 120-121).

As is to be expected, the kind of  decentralization  seen depends on the idiosyncrasies of each country where it is attempted (Astiz et al., 2002; Gibton et al., 2000; Green, 1999; Levinson, 2005; Rhoten, 2000). In Colombia, for example, decentralization diminishes the power of teachers’ unions, and legitimizes government’s domestic reforms, while in Spain it allows for more decision-making participation at the provincial level but gives central management more control over the curriculum (Astiz et al., 2002). In Argentina, local power holders and structural realities stand in the way of decentralization (Rhoten, 2000), while in Israel, school principals are skeptical because they feel it might in fact diminish their influence over local policies (Gibton et al., 2000).

Despite the clearly documented diversity in the conceptualization of decentralization and its imple-mentation in practice, scholars still have a tendency to portray decentralization as a direct transfer of authority from the centre to the periphery. Departing from this tendency, McGinn and Street refute the understanding of decentralization as a transferring or devolving power and authority from government to the individual citizen (1986, p. 471). Similarly, Vavrus (2004) reminds us “decentralization does not necessarily mean the end of decision-making at the ministerial or executive levels” (2004, p. 147). One of the key paradoxes, related to government will, is aptly explained by Gibton et al. (2000, p. 193) who argue that since the state does not truly accept the idea of decentralization, it tries to keep hold of its former power by centralizing certain areas, such as curriculum and standard testing, while decentralizing other aspects of the education system.

Various scholars have successfully shed light on the political usefulness of the decentralization discourse, which in power-political situations driven with internal conflict allows politicians to protect and increase their power or avoid blame for their inadequate policies (Aasen, 2004; Astiz et al., 2002; Green, 1999; Lauglo, 1995). In effect, peripheral actors are given responsibility for the execution of educational policies but not effective administrative authority, while central authorities are protected from blame when the implementation goes wrong (Astiz et al., 2002, p. 86). As Aasen (2004, p. 142) succinctly points out, selective decentralization may simply represent a more legitimate system of control within a strong state. Taking this further, some suggest that decentralization should not be seen as simply an issue of empowerment of individual citizens, but rather as an issue of power distribution among social groups (Aasen, 2004; Levin, 1997; McGinn and Street, 1986).

Further criticisms of a blind faith in decentralization can be found in the wider literature. For example, Rhoten warns policy makers and analysts against overly sanguine attitudes, since they often stem more from hope and predilection than hard evidence (2000, p. 615). Likewise, McGinn and Street (1986) along with Simkins (1999)   point    out    that    there   is   no   evidence   that decentralization leads naturally to a more efficient system or reduce costs.

In this context, one should not ignore the strong link between the state and the education system, particularly the former’s desire to keep control over the latter, while avoiding taking the blame for mistakes in the field. Otherwise, one risks the repetition of common fallacy that decentralization is a path leading to greater participation and sharing of power. Of course, the belief in decentralization and its promises, notably an improvement in the quality of education, is so strong that it eclipses all other possible alternative approaches to structuring the TES.


The JDP: A dictator or an apprentice of the new governance?

Scholarly literature confirms the impression that states around the world have recently been going through great transformations, particularly concerning public management (Allais, 2012; Baker et al., 2012; Ball, 2006; Borman et al., 2012; Johnson and Morris, 2010; Levinson et al., 2009; Levinson, 2005; Rhoten, 2000; Rizvi and Lingard 2010; Starr, 2011). In his study of these transformations, Ball (2007) identifies “a new governance” and summarizes its manifestation in the education sector as “a concentration of power at the centre as well as a movement to localities” (p. 114).

In the case of Turkey, official JDP documents confirm the party’s commitment to these changes, including in the field of education. In its statute of 2013, under the heading ‘Our Understanding of Public Management,’ the party details the changes to be achieved:

Our party aims to place the concept of public management on an axis of democratization, decentrali-zation and civilization. It believes that a contemporary state has to have the following features:

1- Instead of the accumulation of power and authority over public management at the centre, an understanding of the state should spread in which authority, responsibility and functions are transferred as much as possible to peripheral managements where the state’s several functions can be realized in tandem with local administrations.

2- As a requirement of our understanding of the social state, the state has to undertake social welfare. Therefore, the state has to implement social security, social support and social service programs effectively.

3- The state should delegate all service fields, except those related to its basic functions, including internal and external security, justice, basic education, health and infrastructure; its functions in organization and inspection should continue (AKP, 2013, p. 652).

So while  the  JDP  declares  its  commitment  to  giving more authority to the periphery, it still maintains tight control over a gamut of “basic functions” –security, justice, basic education, health, and infrastructure. The fact that the JDP considers education to be a fundamental state function goes a long way to explaining its tenacity in maintaining its decision-making control over the TES.

Notwithstanding, one cannot argue that the ruling JDP never share the authority and power in making educational policies. Illustrating this notion, while rationalizing the recent reconstruction of the ministry, an official document hints that the JDP actually is determinant to make use of peripheral contribution to the betterment of the TES. The document reads:

There must be an orientation in the MoNE towards service principles. The central management of the MoNE deals best with more macro level tasks including strategic planning, definition of the curricular program and coordination. Apart from these high-profile functions, most authorities and responsibilities should be given to the provinces and local managements (MEB, 2011, p. 31).

This quote shows that the ruling JDP had already rolled up its sleeves to turn the ministry into an organization that only deals with nation-wide educational policies, so that the provinces and local bureaucrats were to be given more power and authority over the decision-making process on the ground.

In practice, signs of Rizvi and Lingard’s ‘functional decentralization’ and Aasen’s ‘delegation’ can be seen in the JDP’s management practices in the TES, but the emphasis strongly on the centralization side of the spectrum. This is because while the authority of taking political decisions increasingly accumulates in the centre, local authorities are only allowed to take everyday decisions regarding practical issues of implementation. Put bluntly, it cannot be argued that there is a balance between decentralized and centralized management practices in TES, while all authority and decision-making power still rest with a handful of politicians.

Yet, having a strong hand over the calibration of education does not necessarily go wrong, especially when it comes to getting over a decades-long challenge in the field. Let us look at the headscarf ban, which was a legacy of the 28 February 1997 period stopping thousands of veiled female students from attending university for many years. The JDP government discontinued this ban and thus helped veiled female students enter university, in the process ending a decades-long dispute in Turkish politics. On this point, it is noteworthy that, although previous governments attempted to abolish the headscarf ban, they were not successful. The JDP’s success on this issue proves its political  power  and  authority  in  political  terms,  greater than other political parties or indeed the Turkish army. Hence, the removal of the headscarf ban can be attributed to the party’s unsurpassed political power and authority.

Nevertheless, although it rhetorically committed itself to urgent decentralization in its first years of power, the JDP has recently been accused of being an authoritarian party. In fact, these critiques have gone so far as to label the JDP’s leadership cadres dictators. To demonstrate the prevalence of this dramatic accusations, it is enough to look at titles of recently published works of scholarship: AKP’s New Turkey (Toledano, 2011); Sharing Power: Turkey’s Democratization Challenge in the Age of the AKP Hegemony (Onis, 2013); AKP at the Crossroads: Erdogan’s Majoritarian Drift (Ozbudun, 2014); Turkey’s AKP in Power (Dagi, 2008); Islamization of Turkey under the AKP Rule (Turk, 2013). With these phrases in mind, an examination of the JDP’s alleged renunciation of its former commitment to decentralization might enrich the discussions around decentralization in education and, more generally, of the supposed dictatorship of the JDP.

Despite the initial emphatic nature of the JDP’s decentralization discourse, policy-making authority has since then rested solely with the government. Many see this as proof of a mismatch between the government’s rhetoric and its commitment to its declarations. However, taking the easy step of characterizing JDP rule as a dictatorship fails to fully explain this mismatch, as there might be many factors influencing education.

Firstly, this impression of insincerity could be a result of the common misconception, examined above, that decentralization is the polar opposite of centralization, as well as the cure for all education’s ills. Secondly, the JDP’s tight grasp of authority over educational policy can be attributed to its conviction that education is one of the basic responsibilities of a strong state. In fact, the JDP implemented some aspects of decentralization: while it maintains the authority of decision-making on political and nation-wide issues, it allows other parties to take decisions regarding the practical issues of the periphery. Therefore, a recognition of the strong link between politics and education would help some observers move away from a single-minded focus on decentralization as a certain solutions to the dilemmas facing the TES, as well as showing the simplicity of labeling the JDP as dictator.


Turkish scholars’ commitment to the virtues of decentralization stems from a reaction against centralized management practices in education, which deemed outdated and unsuitable. In spite of scholars’ conviction, the JDP government has pursued a twofold strategy, decentralizing decision-making on practical and peripheral issues,  while  maintaining  its  authority  on  political  and nation-wide policies. This nuanced approach reflects the JDP’s conviction that education is one of the main responsibilities of the state. This concern with the education means that, despite the accusations of dictatorship, the JDP does not seem to step backward in dealing with its one of the basic functions, which is educational policy-making. In conclusion, although decentralization is not necessarily the best way of managing educational affairs and despite the unfounded accusations against the JDP, the simplistic ideas about the superiority of decentralization and the dictatorship of the ruling JDP will likely continue to survive because of the handiness of the two in scholarly and political labyrinths.


The authors have not declared any conflict of interest


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