An overly simplistic concept of local control

Who should control education? That’s the subject of a new study analyzing forty years of polling data assessing public opinions on education governance. Michigan State University researchers Rebecca Jacobsen and Andrew Saultz mostly examined survey results from the often-cited annual Gallup poll to conclude that “the public often expresses strong support for local control.”

Who should control education?

Gallup poll questions aren’t known for nuance and complexity. So it’s no surprise that the conclusions from this study are just as simplistic.

Jacobsen and Saultz begin their report by carping that folks like Fordham’s Checker Finn say that school boards and current notions of local control have become antiquated in the twenty-first century. Reformers and policymakers, Jacobsen and Saultz argue, should realize that the public sees a role for federal and state governments in education, but not when it comes to local decision making.

But the authors suggest the only alternative to the status quo of “local decision making” is federal or state control. In fact, Finn has argued for a re-invention of local control, and more recently wrote in the journal National Affairs that enhanced levels of parental influence and choice have allowed new forms of local control to take root.

Specifically:

  • Most states allow parents, educators, and organizations to establish and manage their own charter schools;
  • The more recent proliferation of school choice – charters, vouchers, magnet schools, virtual schools, and the like – are beginning to fracture the school district monopoly; and
  • While more online and blended-learning models of education don’t represent a formal change of governance, they do transfer the “local control” of education to the household.

Models like this—not to mention the push for parent trigger laws in many states—certainly don’t abolish local control, but they do further decentralize education governance while burdening states with the task of maintaining order and quality control. More importantly, they rely less on the local education agency for “local decision making.”

And they form the basis of the survey question Gallup ought to ask next:

In your opinion, who should have greater influence over public schools—the federal government, the state government, the local school board, the mayor’s office, or parents?

Of course, to re-invent local control takes an effort from every one of those entities—and maybe some revisions to state constitutions—but it’s a necessary step if we want to seriously consider who should be in charge of public education. Maybe the reason why survey respondents favor the status quo is because no one has asked them what local control ought to look like.

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