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Education Opinion

Local Control and Educational Equity

By James E. Ryan — September 21, 2016 2 min read
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I have noticed some flirtation with local control recently by those on the left end of the political spectrum, who are otherwise committed to educational equity. This includes the Black Lives Matter movement and the NEA. There seems to be some interest in returning more control and autonomy not simply from the federal government to the states, but from states to local communities--so that communities can decide questions like when to close schools, whether to allow charter schools, and how to assign teachers.

It is puzzling to see groups that care about educational equity embracing local control. Local control in education has historically been associated with justifying inequities. In two watershed cases, preserving local control was used by the United States Supreme Court as a reason to leave inequities untouched.

In San Antonio v. Rodriguez, decided in 1973, the Court upheld Texas’ unequal funding system on the grounds that local inequities helped preserve local control. The basic idea, the Court explained, was that if the State contributed more money in order to equalize funding, it would attach strings to that money and interfere with local control.

In Milliken v. Bradley, decided just a year after Rodriguez, the Court again relied on local control, this time to limit the reach of school desegregation. The Court blocked a lower court order to integrate across district lines in metropolitan Detroit. The Court ordered busing across district lines because busing within Detroit alone would be futile, given the racial composition of the school population at the time. In rejecting this plan, the Supreme Court again relied on local control. The Court argued that to allow busing for integration across district lines would interfere with the tradition of allowing local school districts to control their own schools, including who gets to attend them.

This is not to say local control is a completely bad thing. It allows for experimentation. It might also enhace accountability, insofar as local voters may have an easier time holding local officials accountable than they are holding federal officials accountable.

But allowing for experimentation allows for experiments that some, especially on the left, may not support. Local control can support voluntary integration plans, but also creationism or intelligent design. It can support preventing school closures, but also voucher programs or charter schools. To support local control, in short, is to endorse variation, including among some key issues that those on the left abhor.

More directly, however, local control has not historically been associated with equity. This is why most redistribution programs have occurred at the state and federal level. It’s easy to understand why. To the extent districts are unequally situated with respect to resources, preserving local control will lock in those inequalities.

So the key question, to me, is why the embrace of local control by groups and individuals who purport to care about educational equity?

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