Top-Down Reforms Rekindle Old Debate for Local Boards

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Two years ago last month, a federal document decrying the mediocrity of American public schools set off a nationwide reform movement that has generated hundreds of new state laws and regulations governing precollegiate education.

For school-board leaders and others charged with implementing those man-dates at the district level, the legislative activism has renewed an old debate over the governance of public education and the degree to which the tradition of "local control" is being eroded.

Many of the more than 100 local education officials interviewed in an informal Education Week survey--including leaders of school-board associations in 49 states--agree that the spate of state mandates in areas such as curriculum, instruction, testing, school management, and personnel evaluation and compensation has infringed upon their autonomy.

"The legislature has taken over and tried to control everything in God Almighty's world," says J.E. Osborn, a school-board member in Sunray, Texas.

But school-board leaders differ widely in their assessment of the significance of the broadened state role.

Some argue that the complex new regulatory climate reflects the legitimate state responsibility for education and is bringing more state dollars for schools. Others see in the reform mandates a serious threat to the ability of local school boards to meet the specific needs of their communities.

Yet whether or not they view the situation with alarm, school-board officials across the country generally agree that state activism has changed the balance of governance--at least temporarily and possibly for the long term.

Shift in Philosophy

"There's no doubt about it, it's taking away from local control," says J.K. Williams, executive director of the Arkansas School Boards Association, of the state's omnibus education bill. "But most people felt it was needed to get something moving throughout the state. In many instances, local boards have not been able to do what they should have done over the past couple of years to improve their schools, and probably because they didn't have the funds to do it."

In Florida, says Donald R. Magruder, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association, state and local governments used to operate under an informal working agreement.

"The legislature," he explains, "would establish the broad goals and a program audit and leave the mechanics of implementing legislation up to the local school boards. Then came the 80's and the excellence movement, and there was a 180-degree reversal of this philosophy. The legislature said, more or less, 'We gave you your opportunity and you dropped the ball, and therefore we must mandate to you not only the goals, but also the how-to's. And we'll continue to audit you."'

As a result, legislation was passed that, among other things: raised graduation requirements; barred students with less than a 1.5 grade-point average from participating in extracurricular activities; lengthened the high-school day by 60 minutes; and strengthened the core curriculum in grades 4 through 8 by requiring study in certain subjects, including computer literacy.

Mr. Magruder says he regrets the loss of local control but is not "bitter or frustrated in the least," primarily because the "legislature was willing to put their money where their mouth was."

Mandates and Money

The situation in Florida, where legislators have poured more than $150 million into education reform in the past two years, is similar to those in other states where significant losses in local control have been more easily accepted because of substantial increases in aid, sometimes with fewer restrictions attached.

For example, a career ladder in Tennessee is reported to be more palatable because the state pays 100 percent of its costs. Virginia's movement toward an increased state role in setting the curriculum, graduation requirements, and the school calendar has been accompanied by what one school-board official calls "exemplary leadership" in school finance.

And in Georgia, one official reports that the Quality Basic Education Act of 1985, which provides for flexibility in spending state funds and implementing state-mandated programs, provides "the legal foundation on which to build one of the finest public-school systems in the country."

Raising the Standard

In Texas, where comprehensive school-reform measures have sparked a debate over the sudden shift away from local control, the story is similar, maintains Orbry D. Holden, executive director of the Texas Association of School Boards.

Lawmakers have approved a sweeping set of changes, including mandates for what must be taught in specific courses in each grade level and the minimum amount of time that must be spent on elementary-school content areas.

In addition, local school-board members have been told not to begin school before Sept. 1, not to interrupt the school day with more than one public-address announcement, not to exempt students from final examinations, to fail students with more than five unexcused absences a semester or average grades below 70 percent, and to prohibit students who fail one or more courses from participating in extracurricular activities.

"In every state, some districts are not doing as good a job as other districts," Mr. Holden says. "And if you're going to say this is the minimum that's expected, then they've got to do the minimum or lose their accreditation and state funding. So it's not an unhealthy situation, although it's not as palatable as it could be."

"Education is a state responsibility," he adds, "and the locals have had the autonomy to do within reason what the state asked. All the state did was expand a little bit more the requirements. They raised the standard."

Yet with the mandates, Mr. Holden notes, came more state dollars and a new funding formula that substantially increases aid to needy districts and gives localities--which receive block-grant aid based on a weighted formula--"complete authority on how to use their money."

"You lost some local control, but you gained in other areas," Mr. Holden concludes. "So I consider it's been a two-way street."

To others, however, state intervention represents a one-way street with frequent stop signs that prohibit school districts from moving toward excellence at their own pace.

"At the state or federal level, they just don't think the local units, moving independently of any master plan, can move toward school improvement effectively," says Ronald W. Stephens, executive director of the Vermont School Boards Association.

"There's a tendency to say one set of requirements is good for all when you're dealing with different needs," he adds. "One school system may be highly rural and their focus is in vocational agriculture. Another may be in a community with a machine-tool industry. And there are suburban communities where there's more attention given to college-preparatory and gifted-and-talented programs. One model is not appropriate for all school districts, just as one curriculum is not appropriate for all students. You have to have the flexibility to adapt, and that is the selling point for local control."

Says Toni K. Pepe, an officer of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education: "The more rigid you are at the state level in terms of what should happen in the local district, the more mechanics you prescribe, then the less flexibility you have to diagnose individual student needs and to meet those needs."

That is the case in South Carolina, where the state has set a weekly minimum for instruction in physical education, notes John C. Cone, executive director of the state's school-boards association. "In some communities, where the kids are doing very well on the standardized tests, that's fine. But in other areas, where 60 percent of the kids are reading below grade level, they really ought to be spending the time learning how to read."

'It's a State District'

For a number of school-board officials, recent reform prescriptions mark another stage in the shift in governance authority that began with federal interventions in the 1960's and 70's and continued with the school-finance reform movement of the 1970's and the growth of collective bargaining.

Joel Tudor, superintendent of the Mammoth/San Manuel School District in Arizona, and John Bunch, a board member in the same district, are among those who find the shift unsettling.

"Our state started its own reform movement before the national one,'' Mr. Tudor says. "Through equalizing aid, the state gives us 85 percent of our money, whereas it used to be 13 percent. I would say that the control of the schools is directly proportional to the percent of state money."

Mr. Tudor says his district, a wealthy mining community, was spending about $500 per pupil above the state average before the legislature decided about five years ago to put a cap on spending and redistribute revenue to poorer school districts.

Today, the district is restricted to spending about $2,000 per student, Mr. Tudor says, noting that if the community had been able to maintain the status quo, it would be spending about $2,800 per student.

Because of the cap, he says, electives and vocational-education programs were slashed, teachers were laid off, and student-teacher ratios were increased.

"When I moved into that district, the people were willing to spend anything it took to make a super school, and we had a super school," adds Mr. Bunch, a former teacher and administrator. "But now we've had to adjust and in that adjustment we lost some good people and our kids lost some good programs."

"More and more, the legislature is setting policies for us," he says. "It's no longer a local district. It's a state district. And that's the bottom line."

Unfunded Mandates

Nino Canzonetti, a school-board member in New Britain, Conn., notes that because reform mandates are often unaccompanied by new state money, his school district is forced to abandon its own set of priorities in favor of the state's.

A case in point, he says, is the new requirement that districts design and implement five-year inservice-training programs for teachers by 1985.

"That will cost our district $40,000," Mr. Canzonetti says. "And that means we can't afford two excellent alternative-education programs for hard-core dropouts and discipline problems that we have piloted and that are amazingly successful."

"We're really on the horns of a dilemma, in a Catch-22 situation," he adds. "We agree with inservice training. We think that's one of the most important things we can do. But without the funding, our choices are absolutely limited. We can identify in our district more severe problems that need attention."

Minimums Become Maximums

Another problem, Mr. Canzonetti and others contend, is that state minimums tend to become maximums.

In Montana, for example, thentinued from Page 25

by local boards. We see a continuing effort on the part of national and statewide bodies to make decisions for local boards. And that's the local boards' fault, because they haven't stood up and really fought it very well."

Assessing the Future

Although some officials interviewed suggest that the governance pendulum will swing back toward local leaders once education is displaced on the national agenda by other concerns, most predict that the shift of authority to the state level will continue for the foreseeable future.

In the strong local-control state of Minnesota, for example, there is a movement toward state-mandated competency testing. "I don't think it's paranoid to think state testing would lead to a state curriculum and state adoption of textbooks," says Jean Olson, president of the Minnesota School Boards Association. "State tests don't mean anything unless you test the same thing."

And in Missouri, officials are concerned about two proposed omnibus education bills that would include measures for statewide testing and differentiated-pay programs.

"I think the trend across the country, not only in Missouri, is for the state government to take a more active role in monitoring, authorizing, and mandating programs and concepts that heretofore have been left up to local policymakers of boards of education," says Carter Ward, executive director of the Missouri School Boards Association. "It's one thing to set up structure. It's another to mandate how it will be specifically implemented."

Suggests Michael W. Kirst, pro-fessor of education at Stanford University: "If the drift from local to state control over the past 25 years continues for the next 25 years, then I think you'll see a drastic erosion of local control.

"Unless we regain trust in local authorities to deal with disadvantaged minorities and to hold high academic standards, the drift will continue," he adds. "That's the key--the confidence and the trust. The state has all the trump cards. They can do anything they want to the localities, even get rid of them."

But David S. Seeley, an education consultant and former assistant U.S. commissioner of education, offers a more promising scenario.

"Too many people," he says, "make the assumption that educational power is a zero-sum game; if somebody wins, then somebody else has to lose."

"On the contrary," he adds, "the full potential of education has been so little exercised that there's plenty of room for power to grow at both levels. In many cases, the state action can stimulate, and is stimulating, much greater local action and effort."

Vol. 04, Issue 33

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