Education Opinion

Whatever Happened to Local Control?

By Nancy Flanagan — October 03, 2011 3 min read
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Like any veteran teacher, I have had occasional doubts about turning Big Education Decisions over to local school boards. I spent thirty years teaching in the same small-town district, which morphed from very rural farmland to the fringes of urban exodus during that period.

The prosperous founding-family farmers who sat on our Board of Ed in the 1970s were supplanted by the “rising tide of mediocrity” hand-wringers in the 1980s, “basic education only” cost-cutters in the 1990s and technology enthusiasts in the 21st century.

I don’t believe there has ever been a school year when I wasn’t teaching at least one board member’s child. I’ve seen local boards make baseless, idiotic decisions and demonstrate the “I’m only on the board to get benefits for my child” syndrome. I’ve been asked by an administrator to change the grade of a board member’s son, and instructed to “forget” that a board member’s daughter stole a musical instrument, when the police report was filed.

I know there’s plenty of room for malfeasance--not to mention outright educational incompetence--with local school boards. I’ve experienced it.

And yet--somebody’s gotta run the show in a representative democracy. If we’re going to give parents the signatory right to put their local school out of business, turning it over to a for-profit charter operator, we can certainly defend elected parent and community oversight for traditional public schools.

We need local school boards for the same reason we need community libraries, roadside fruit stands, town councils and taverns where everybody knows your name. Because one size does not fit all, and it’s good to support and monitor the neighborhood where you live--where you’re invested.

I do agree with my friend Renee Moore that America needs to finish and fulfill the promises it made to parents over four decades ago to provide equal education for our children, especially children in poverty, who have been systematically shut out. I also know that some local boards have held on to control specifically to keep those children from their birthright: a good education.

I’m just not sure that the feds are up to the one job that should be theirs, vis-a-vis education: ensuring equity. Especially since they hooked up with hedge fund managers, NBC, the Gates Foundation and Pearson to accomplish that goal.

Over the past decade, there’s been an increasing number of articles about local school boards and their irrelevance in a field increasingly dominated by “choice.” Here, for example, Fordham’s Mike Petrilli paints local boards as stubbornly resistant to all kinds of things, from on-line learning to assigning sufficient value to standardized test scores.

Petrilli is highly critical of small districts’ capacity to select and train teachers, or develop curriculum, claiming you have to have “scale” to do these things well. Which seems a little schizophrenic to me, given that the primary, advertised benefit of charters (both high-functioning charters and the dregs) is that they’re small, nimble, innovative and not bound by red-tape rules for building capacity.

If policy-makers mistrust the power of local boards, they can do what Michigan Governor Rick Snyder has done: simply void the elected board, and appoint their own “Emergency Financial Managers.” Dissolving a few schools boards here and there--the ones with their own ideas about what kids in River City need and their parents want-- may be a piece of cake for Snyder. But it isn’t democracy.

Beneath all the rhetoric about giving clueless local boards too much agency there’s something very disturbing--a whiff of we-know-better, managerial arrogance. As a teacher, I’d rather take my chances on electing people I know.

How do we elect better civic boards? Tim Sklekar suggests we ask all school board candidates if they believe in the concept of a free and equal public education for everyone. That’s a start.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land 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.