Education Opinion

Reinventing Local Control

By Chester E. Finn Jr. — January 23, 1991 9 min read

So deeply ingrained in our consciousness is the idea of “local control of education” that few Americans even think about it any more. Like “separation of church and state,” “civilian control of the military,” and “equality of opportunity,” the phrase rolls off the tongue without even engaging the mind. To suggest that it may be obsolete or harmful is like hinting that Mom’s apple pie is laced with arsenic.

The time has come, however, to subject “local control” as we know it to closer scrutiny. It is one of those 19th century school-governance and -finance arrangements that may not serve the country well at the dawn of the next millennium. It is enshrined in neither the Ten Commandments nor the Constitution. It could, therefore, be changed. Indeed, it has already been changing in practice even though we have not yet revamped the theory.

The Constitution, of course, is silent about education. By not being assigned to the federal government, this function was left to the states, and state constitutions are where we find spelled out the duty of the commonwealth to furnish education to the citizenry. It is the states that gave themselves this mandate. It is the states that have it today.

Early on, however, all save Hawaii devolved the actual operation of schools to local education agencies. This followed an even older pattern in which towns and villages ran their own schools-or subsidized the work of quasi-private academies serving local children-long before states got into the act. Localities were where most of the public school dollar was raised in those days, too. States set certain rules for schools, to be sure, and as the 20th century unrolled, they also came to provide additional funds, but it was taken for granted that cities, towns, and counties did the heavy lifting in public education. Though local governance structures varied, the usual pattern involved a lay school committee or board of education which hired a professional superintendent to manage the system.

As might be expected of a fairly stable, mostly rural, and heavily agrarian society sprawled across a continental nation, local school systems were numerous and small. In 1931, there were 128,000 of them, with pupil enrollments averaging just 200. Not until the mid-1950’s did their number fall below 50,000. Today, almost 16,000 local districts operate some 83,000 public schools. Many of these “systems” are still tiny, however. In 1988, 55 percent of the districts enrolled fewer than 1,000 students each. (At the other end of the spectrum, 4 percent of the districts, with enrollments greater than 10,000, accounted for nearly half of all students.)

These local-system offices are staffed by more than 200,000 people, and the school boards that direct them comprise about 97,000 individuals.

All this is familiar stuff. The interesting question is whether this legacy of our agrarian past makes sense for our high-tech future. From where I sit, it doesn’t. Let me suggest four reasons.

First, states have evolved into the senior partners in school finance. Their portion (now 50 percent) crept past the local share (now 44 percent) in the late 1970’s. It continues to rise and, as property-tax-limitation referenda and school-financial equalization lawsuits proliferate, it seems inevitable that fiscal decisions made in state capitals will increasingly be the decisions that matter most in public education.

Second, states are where most of the action has been with respect to policy innovation, too, as the “excellence movement” took shape in the 1980’s and shows no sign of abating in the 1990’s. One can cite a handful of exceptions (Rochester, Chelsea, Chicago) where the main impetus was local, but these pale alongside such statewide reform efforts as those of Kentucky, South Carolina, California, New Jersey, and a dozen other jurisdictions. Moreover, big revisions in high-school graduation requirements, teacher qualifications, and student assessment have been undertaken by virtually every state. Though one can make a case that state activism has actually boosted the policy significance of local school managers, too, it’s hard to claim that decisions made at the municipal level are even half so important today as they were a decade or two ago. (For a provocative discussion, see “Understanding Local Control in the Wake of State Education Reform” by Susan H. Fuhrman and Richard F. Elmore in the Spring 1990 issue of Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis.)

Third, almost a dozen states have enacted “choice” laws, the underlying principle of which is that youngsters may attend any public school in the state, notwithstanding town or district boundaries, with the state’s portion of the money accompanying the pupil in the manner of a virtual public-sector voucher. Several states have also provided for secondary students to take college courses, to re-enter different schools than those from which they dropped out, and so forth. State-arranged pupil mobility between city and suburb is part of the racial-desegregation strategy in several jurisdictions as well. The point in all these instances is that children are not obliged to attend the public school where they reside. That means the school board in their place of domicile no longer controls their education unless they want it to.

Fourth, restructuring, decentralization, and school-site management loom large on the education-reform agenda of the 1990’s. Yet these are a far cry from what has traditionally been meant by “local control.” Today’s goal is to confer authority, accountability, and autonomy on the individual school-building staff (and, sometimes, parents), not on a municipal school system. This is the crucial distinction between the sort of reform we see in Chicago today and the kind undertaken in New York City two decades ago. Building-level decisionmaking is a form of local control, of course, but it’s not what that term has historically implied.

Similar developments can be spotted across the Atlantic, where British education reformers have conferred sweeping budgetary and personnel authority on individual schools and sharply reduced the powers of local education authorities. (Schools that wish to can even “opt out” of their control altogether and establish a direct relationship with the central government in London.) “The political function of local authorities has become very small,” writes the Cambridge education professor David Hargreaves, “especially since schools seem free to ignore local policies if they so wish.”

What, besides tradition, does “local control” have going for it in American education today? Not even public approbation, it appears from the Gallup education poll. That survey has several times asked respondents whether they would favor national high-school-graduation examinations. By 1988, the proportion endorsing such a dramatic departure from customary practice had risen to 73 percent—up from 50 percent in 1958 and 65 percent as recently as 1984. In 1989, Gallup also asked whether people would favor requiring that schools “conform to national achievement standards and goals,” “use a standardized national curriculum,” and deploy “standardized national testing programs to measure the academic achievement of studnets.” To these, the responses were overwhelmingly affirmative: 70 percent, 69 percent, and 77 percent, respectively, for the public at large, with parents even more favorably disposed.

How deep-seated could our commitment to “local control” be if two-thirds to three-quarters of the American public are willing to jettison its most important manifestations? Not very, Ernest L. Boyer observed to a newspaper interviewer in early 1990. “I think for the first time America is more preoccupied with national results and local school control,” he said. “Today, Hondas and Toyotas and Japanese V.C.R.’s have us really worried about national competitiveness, and that’s more important than whether we have local governance … All of this suggests there has been a sea change in the way Americans think about education.”

Breathe deeply. What if we were to declare local boards and superintendents to be archaic in the 1990’s, living fossils of an earlier age? If one set of important decisions and duties moves up to the state (or even the nation), and another set shifts down to the individual school (and to parents), what is the “local education agency” except another instance of middle management of the sort that most modern organizations are stripping away in the name of efficiency and productivity?

Local school boards are not just superfluous. They are also dysfunctional. They insulate education decisions from voters, taxpayers, and parents. This is ironic, because the theory says they should make schools more responsive to the public. Even though most school boards are elected, however, reality doesn’t track theory. The boards have become part of the “establishment.” They participate in the peculiar politics of an arena occupied by the suppliers of education services-the employees and managers of the system, the vendors who sell it things, the interest groups that prey upon it-rather than the consumers of those services or the taxpayers who underwrite them. That is why the Boston City Council recently moved to abolish that city’s school committee and have the schools run from City Hall. The separate governance system wasn’t working; the educational needs of Boston’s children were not being met. Why cling to an arrangement that isn’t getting the job done?

What is more, at a time when radical alterations are needed throughout elementary-secondary education, school boards have become defenders of the status quo. Their members display the same rosy-tinted complacency as do the administrators they hire. Why make big changes in something you think is working O.K. as it is?

Emily Feistritzer’s 1989 survey of school-board presidents tells us that although they, like the general public, gave low marks to American public education as a whole, four out of five of them awarded grades of A or B to the public schools in their own communities, that is, to the schools over which they have policy oversight. This was not quite so high as the marks conferred by principals and superintendents, to be sure, but it was twice as large a proportion of honors grades as the American people were prepared to give their local schools.

We need change agents in charge of those schools, not preservers of entrenched interests and encrusted practices. If the states discharge their part of the job satisfactorily, specifying the “ends” of education, furnishing resources, and managing the information feedback and accountability systems; if responsibility and authority over the “means” are devolved to the school-building level; and if parents are encouraged to pick any school in the state that, in their judgment, will work well for Matt or Jessica, we could readily dispense with the extra layer.

Local control is dead. Long live local control.

A version of this article appeared in the January 23, 1991 edition of Education Week as Reinventing Local Control