Public Strong on Local Control of Schools, Study Finds

By Michele Molnar — July 17, 2012 2 min read
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A study of 40 years of public opinion polls shows that the public wants to run and improve local schools via elected school boards, but looks to federal and state authorities to ensure equitable distribution of funding and shared standards for what children learn in school.

Education scholars from Michigan State University in East Lansing, Mich. found that Americans support local control of their schools—even as some have tried to portray school boards as “dinosaurs” of governance.

The public believes that all three levels of government—local, state and federal—should be involved in education policy, and that local officials should be in charge of day-to-day operations of the schools, Rebecca Jacobsen, lead researcher on the project, is quoted as saying in a Michigan State release about the paper.

Jacobsen, assistant professor of education, and doctoral student Andrew Saultz analyzed some 40 years of public surveys involving education. Their analysis, in a Public Opinion Quarterly article that was published online yesterday, comes as federal education efforts such as No Child Left Behind Act and Race to the Top have led many policy advocates to focus on federal control of schools.

Parents and community members, too, have been debating the issue of whose role it is to govern schools and what children learn—sometimes quite strenuously—as the traditional public school model and its impact comes under intense scrutiny.

But Jacobsen said it’s a mistake to discount the popularity of local school boards. More than 90,000 locally elected representatives serve on nearly 15,000 school boards in the United States.

“A lot of policymakers today think they can just go around the local boards; that the federal government can create a policy that goes directly to the schools or works around the existing institutions,” Jacobsen said in the release. “But that’s not going to work in the long run, because local control is not dead. People still feel it plays an important role.”

When it comes to policy decisions related to equitable funding and standards across all schools, the public favors state and federal government control, Jacobsen said.

“At the national level we want schools to be relatively equitably funded, and we want schools to teach relatively the same topics and make sure kids have access to the same types of curriculum,” she said.

But the public also believes local officials should be in charge of “running schools” or “improving schools,” the paper found. These findings are particularly powerful, Jacobsen said, given that this preference remains strong even as national policy discussions have criticized local control and taken steps to diminish local decision-making ability through policy changes.

“Some argue that local school governance is a ‘dinosaur’ that needs to be replaced, but local leaders are going to be the ones implementing these federal policies,” Jacobsen said. “So if they’re going to have a major hand in how these policies get shaped at the local level, then we better pay attention to their resources, their capabilities, and not just dismiss them.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the K-12 Parents and the Public blog.