Education Opinion

Equity and Waning Local Control

By Justin Baeder — October 09, 2012 3 min read
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What is the relationship between educational excellence and local control? In my last post, I concluded that we will never have the kind of world-class education system that Finland or Singapore have as long as our “system” is made up of some 13,000 local school districts. Our approach, which Ken Mortland recently called “an extremely loose confederation,” is never going to keep pace with a tightly coordinated, centralized system.

Perhaps this is OK; after all, independence and autonomy are the American way. We’re wary about top-down approaches that impose Washington’s priorities on local affairs, and we don’t seem to have much confidence in the federal government to competently and efficiently operate vast enterprises like public education. Besides, Singapore and Finland are tiny in comparison to the US; no one knows if a nationalized approach would even work in such a large, populous country as the US.

But to what extent is it wise for education to be a truly local affair? From a performance perspective, it’s hard to say, since the US is so dissimilar to the other nations to which it’s usually compared. But from an equity perspective, reducing local control may be a good thing.

Local school districts may be responsible for educating the children in their community, but how well they do is a matter of national importance. Even if our community does a great job of educating its kids, we all suffer if opportunity is lacking anywhere in our country, or as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” And educational quality is surely an issue of justice.

Local control may be a good thing to the extent that it capitalizes on local communities’ interest in ensuring bright futures for their children. On the other hand, local control opens the door to wide variation in the opportunities that are available. Some local control will be exercised poorly, to the point that it has to be taken away; for example, New Mexico’s Education Secretary recently suspended an entire school board for incompetence, and an Iowa judge ordered that school board members be jailed for failing to comply with an earlier ruling.

Of course, we’ll always have scandals and incompetence, so it’s perhaps a tradeoff between having more, smaller scandals in local affairs versus having fewer, larger scandals at the state or federal level. At least everyone is affected equally when we have a major national scandal.

As interesting as it might be to speculate on what a nationalized US education system might look like, I’ll instead make a prediction about what will actually happen.

I think we’ll see the federal government continue to exercise its power through softer policies and funding; we’ll see states take much more active roles in education; and we’ll see local control wane as state control (guided by federal mandates) waxes.

We’ve seen the most action lately at the state level. State legislatures are ending decades-old local battles over matters such as teacher tenure and evaluation, effectively removing local control over substantive issues in public schooling. For the next few years, I think this will continue—states will take more control over education, reducing the autonomy of local school districts and reducing inequities. The NY Times reports that some 20 states have passed legislation on teacher tenure in the past year.

The battles will also get larger and more fierce, as we’re currently seeing in Idaho, and as we saw in Wisconsin last year.

But the power of the federal government will grow too, because as we saw with Race to the Top, states are perfectly willing to cede control to the federal government if it will bring in much-needed funding.

I can only conclude that the impact of this shift will be to improve performance and reduce inequity across our 13,000 school systems. We saw this with Brown v. Board of Education. We saw the same with IDEA. We’ve seen the same with Head Start and other well-administered federal programs, and with state-administered School Improvement Grant programs.

It’s easy to ignore inequity at the local level because you can blame particular people and circumstances. It’s much harder to look across a state or nation and accept the status quo when kids and communities aren’t getting what they need.

On the other hand, I think we’ll also see increasing desperation for federal funding, and more poorly conceived legislation based on unproven reform approaches, just as we saw with Race to the Top. What do you think?

The opinions expressed in On Performance are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.