Education Opinion

Is Education a “Local Issue”?

By Justin Baeder — August 17, 2011 3 min read
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There’s no question that NCLB and RttT have marked an unprecedented level of federal involvement in education. In response to the sweeping and unproven reforms that these laws have brought to our nation’s schools, there is an increasing call for the federal government to stay out of what has traditionally been regarded as a local issue.

But in the modern era, can education be a “local issue”?

In her brilliant ethnographic report “We Are Mountain: Appalachian Educators’ Responses to the Challenge of Systemic Reform,” Maureen Porter notes the inherently local nature of education reform and change:

While policies may be written at the state level, actual reform is radically local. Negotiations about proposed changes are enmeshed in local webs of personalized relationships, power hierarchies, and long-standing paradoxes about the very meaning of education itself. These webs have repeatedly ensnared those officials who, expecting to see systemic reform proceed in a rational, impersonal manner, misjudge how strong local cultural frames of reference can be. Policymakers need a more effective, grounded understanding of the role that these resilient strands of culture play in framing local debates. Community-Educator Negotiationsp. 265

She describes at length the response of educators in a rural Kentucky district to a new state law, the Kentucky Education Reform Act, which (among other things) banned smoking and nepotism, both of which were long-cherished ways of life in this Appalachian community. The law was seen as meddlesome and disrespectful to community values, and was resisted for years after it took effect. Educators half-jokingly nicknamed it the “Kentucky Early Retirement Act.”

The isolated mountain communities of Appalachia may not exemplify the typical response to outside reform efforts, but Porter’s study provides a striking example of the conflict between local and external stakeholders. Now that local school districts are faced with the task of implementing new evaluation systems to comply with new RttT-driven state laws, I predict that the calls for education to be defended as a local issue will grow louder.

But what are the odds these calls will prevail, and what are the arguments for local control? In Porter’s depiction of “Hickory County,” Kentucky, it’s easy to see that local values aren’t always compatible with broader societal norms. When state or federal lawmakers have the will and power to intervene, there’s not much—other than resistance—to protect local control.

Yes, there’s the small matter of the 10th Amendment, but that just means money has done the majority of the talking up to this point—and lately, it’s been a lot of money, with the Obama administration doling out some $4.35 billion in RttT/ARRA funds.

States tend to intervene to address inequalities between districts; for example, school funding in the State of Washington comes mainly from the state, with local levy funds playing only a supplemental role. Hawai’i went much farther years ago in consolidating all local districts into a single state-wide district.

The issue of inequity will, in my view, continue to drive state-level centralization and non-local control for the foreseeable future. At the national level, I think international comparisons and the desire to be globally competitive will push us toward more federal control. When we look beyond our own borders, it’s hard to find an example of a high-performing nation with a strong tradition of local control. For all its drawbacks, non-local control seems to be gaining traction.

For example, let’s look at teacher recruitment and retention. We essentially don’t have a national strategy for developing the teacher workforce; school districts offer widely varying salaries (though usually with similar compensation structures and similar salaries for a wide variety of subject areas), and schools of education offer widely varying preparatory experiences for new teachers.

Right now, if we decided we wanted to pursue a “top-third” strategy for recruiting talent to the teaching profession, we’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who could actually make it happen. The US Department of Education doesn’t accredit teacher education programs directly, doesn’t negotiate with teachers’ unions, and doesn’t set working conditions or salaries within the profession. While states can take over or consolidate school districts, there’s probably more pressure within states to preserve local control.

What do you think about local control? Is education a local issue, or a national issue? How will that change in the near future, if at all?

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.