Money, Mandates, and Local Control in American Public Education
At times, local school districts may feel like marionettes, with state and federal mandates contorting them to fit one policy priority after another. According to this fascinating new book by Wake Forest professor Bryan Shelly, higher levels of government can indeed manipulate local education agencies with remarkably few dollars—as little as 5 percent of their budgets. Shelly uses NCLB to illustrate this effect, showing that even state and local politicians with serious reservations about the law implemented it anyway, unwilling to cut ties to federal cash—or brave the political backlash that would ensue. While some states (like Colorado and New Mexico) have passed laws formally opposing various NCLB provisions, every state has at least partially implemented 95 percent of NCLB’s provisions. The same is true at the district level: Only seven of the nation’s 14,383 school districts have formally opted out of NCLB. With these facts in hand, Shelly draws a simple but important conclusion: A better way for higher levels of government to leverage reform would be to ease up on onerous mandates, leaving to locals the heavy lifting in areas like teacher quality and curriculum. State and federal money need not be accompanied by the demolition of local control. Do that and local school districts might start to whistle Pinocchio’s favorite tune, “I’ve got no strings.”
Bryan Shelly, Money, Mandates, and Local Control in American Public Education, (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2011).
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