Back to the Future: Re-Inventing Local Control

As much as it pains me every time I hear Checker Finn say it, school boards may indeed be irrelevant.  And Checker’s new essay in National Affairs lays out a pretty persuasive case for why they will disappear; not, why they should go away, but why they will simply die on a vine that is no longer part of a healthy education system.  What is most unnerving about Checker’s argument, is that this will happen, somewhat counterintuitively, while making “education local again.”

In short, the new essay, “Beyond the School District,” is an ambitious rethinking of school governance, top to bottom, that weds the best of our past (true local control) with the best of our present (charters, vouchers, mayoral control, technology) to create a workable school system for the 21st century.

And I hate say it, but from where I sit, on a local school board, it makes sense.

As Checker says, with an understatement that should require no argument, our current system isn’t working.  And his attribution of cause surely matches my experience: we have a “confused and tangled web” of local, state, and federal rules and regulation, not to mention a web of “adult interests” like teacher unions, textbook publishers, tutoring firms, bus companies, and the like, that has thwarted the best of reform intentions. Despite spending billions of dollars to fix things, the results continue to be lousy: “millions of children still can not read satisfactorily, do math at an acceptable level, or perform the other skills need for jobs in the modern economy.”

I surely see this dysfunction at the local level, where I sit on a school board that seems to have as much influence over our schools as the deck chair manager had over the direction of the Titanic. (I would temper that statement with one that I make to my local parents and stakeholders all the time: there is no law that says we can’t have a good school.  Unfortunately, the tangled web has a way of complicating that message.)  Checker helps explain the problem by taking us on a grand tour of American education governance history, from the hopeful sprouting of tens of thousands of locally-controlled (and funded) school districts through the “professionalism” wave of the Progressive Era of the last century, and the ensuing consolidation craze, which reduced the number of schools districts from 130,000 in 1930 to fewer than 14,000 by 2008.

Checker skips most of the recent federalism era, which, in this account, might be redundant. But the federal role is surely an issue that will need to be addressed in Finn’s future, since it has contributed mightily to the “tangled web.”  By the same token, as someone who has experienced first-hand the wonder of NCLB, which shined a light in to the dark corners of our schools, where the poor, the ethnic minorities and the disabled had been hidden from view, we will need to make sure that such abuse is not the result of unfettered local autonomy (rather than too much outside influence) and identify a federal responsibility to protect the constitutional rights of our children to equal educational opportunities; indeed, despite some wonderful people in my community, and though I know that Checker’s suggestions will go a long way to restoring “the good” of local control,  not a day goes by that I don’t thank God – and James Madison and Thomas Jefferson – for our federal Bill of Rights.  We will also need to recognize the debilitating influence of federal micro-managing and decide what to do about it; indeed we are in need of a robust discussion about the good, the bad, and the ugly of federal intervention and in future posts I intend to argue, among other things, that keeping the feds out of the curriculum-writing business has only lured them into creating huge highways of waste and inefficiency in much less essential educational territory.

But there is certainly no disputing – or should be no disputing — the need to “restore a true sense of local education,” as Checker argues, because “families and communities—more knowledgeable about their own desires and their children’s needs—[have to] make crucial decisions about how to educate children, rather than leaving those choices to distant, scattered, self-concerned bureaucrats and adult interest groups.”

And as I read Checker, the answer is to untether the promising reform strategies now bubbling up all over the country from the multi-layered governance system that thwarts them. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall!  We have plenty of talented people working within the system, Checker says, but “they seldom have the capacity to innovate, to make judgments about matters beyond their customary duties, or to stage successful interventions in failing districts and schools” (per the “tangle” described above).  Indeed, as Checker says, “new forms of local control have started to take root.”   Mayoral control is one of those new governance structures — and we need that direct connection not just in big cities.  My small school district, for instance is an amalgam of five local towns, none of whose mayors or legislative councils have anything to say about education. It is a disconnect between a huge part of their constituencies – parents and children – and a significant part of their economic health and well-being — education — which the local school district has little stake in.

Also, “less visible, but far more widespread,” says Checker, are the many alternatives to the traditional Local Education Agency (LEA) model: choice and charter schools, vouchers, magnet schools, virtual schools, homeschools, etc.  Says Finn: “it can accurately be said that slightly more than half of all American students today attend schools that they or their parents selected.”  Finally, there is technology, the invention that allows “local control…to be brought right into parents’ homes.”  As a member of a dysfunctional LEA (for all the reasons Checker suggests), I would welcome the opportunity to return our schools to a system of true local control, including spinning individual schools off to their own governing bodies.

So, these many reform vehicles add up to the “direction that the future of American education should point,” as Checker says. But how do you do it? What does it look like?   Here’s what he suggests:

  • “Self-governing, charter-style schools should become the norm, not the exception.”
  • States (the governor and legislature not some “independent” body) would “both increase and shrink their roles.” They would “authorize” every school and hold it accountable “for academic results, for complying with essential rules, for properly handling public dollars, and so forth….”  They would also ensure that there are “enough approved schools to accommodate all children.” But they would “back off from their customary micromanagement and regulation of the K-12 space….”
  • Local funding of schools “as we know it would vanish.”  States would pay for schools – and this is one of Checker’s key proposals — through a “weighted student funding” formula in which “the amount of money devoted to a child’s education varies with his needs and educational circumstances and accompanies that child to the school of his choice.”

Again, I do worry about placing undo faith in states, whose leaders and legislatures have shown themselves to be plenty receptive to special interests, and I encourage more discussion of the federal role in thwarting monopolies, whether of private or public making.

We won’t find the answers to all our questions here, but “Beyond the School District” is a much-needed start to remaking school governance for modern times. It imagines a refreshing Tocquevilian system of free associations that would, concludes Checker, “endeavor to make education local again.”  And that, for America, is to make education whole again.

–Peter Meyer

This post also appeared on Flypaper

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