Local Control Doesn’t Have to Be Sacrificed for School Choice

The Hoover Institution’s Koret Task Force on K-12 Education released a white paper this week entitled “Choice and Federalism: Defining the Federal Role in Education.”  I looked forward to reading what this conservative think tank based at Stanford University had to say.  I was disappointed.

While I applaud their ideas as they relate to school choice I was frustrated to see that they dismissed local control.  Right in their forward you see where they are headed as they listed the options for the federal government going forward, as the second option was to: “Devolve power to states and districts, thereby returning to the status quo of the past century.”

Local control does not equate status quo.  Why buy into the notion that only the Federal government can innovate?  They, throughout the paper, advocate greater parental involvement and control. How is that really achieved by a top-down approach?

Then there’s the constitutionality question that isn’t even addressed.  On pg. 1 in the executive summary they write:

The top-down approach aspires to emulate the national standards,accountability, curriculum, and teacher preparation policies dictated by the centralized ministries of education in most developed nations. The arguments for the top-down approach in the United States include the consistency and coherence that can flow from a centrally controlled system, as well as the ability of the Federal government to counteract some of the forces that support the status quo in education at state and local levels. Thus in the top-down model the federal government becomes an agent of reform and a provider of quality standards that serve the nation’s interests better than the haphazard and often self-serving ministrations of fifteen thousand individual school districts and fifty states.

Before that they said that mention in the forward that “sadly, the federal government’s increased role education has led to only small improvements in performance by American students.”  So how exactly have they been an agent of reform?  Through the common core state standards?  States such as California and Massachusetts have seen their standards diminished as a result of adopting the CCSS.  Reform can, and is, happening at the state and local levels.  Why?  Because parents and community leaders have more vested in the education of their kids than some bureaucrat in DC.   They go on:

It is unclear to us how releasing states and school districts from federal accountability and granting them maximum flexibility is anything more than a return to the status quo. It is the regrettable state of the status quo that motivated increased federal involvement in the first place. With a quarter of America’s youth not graduating with a regular high school degree, with those students who remain in school performing at mediocre academic levels compared with students in many of the nations with which we compete, and with the costs of our public education system among the highest in the world, we believe that something is needed other than a return to the happy days of school governance in the last century, (pg. 3).

During our “happy days of school governance” the United States had a world-class educational system.  Some states achieved greater results than others for certain.  That is a result of federalism with the demographics and political/cultural ideology being different at the state and local levels.  With the federal government being involved you still have that, but now you have unfunded mandates being thrown in the mix.  Some schools continue to improve, while others will not.  This has more to do with teaching staff, how entrenched teacher’s unions are in a particular district, and parental involvement.

They acknowledge this:

But local control in the sense of parental and taxpayer influence is undermined in the current system by special interests that control school bureaucracies. The present arrangement of school boards, federal and state regulations, union contracts,teacher licensing, and court orders is frozen in place and thus can resist or distort almost any new initiative. Further, the ability of taxpaying parents of school-aged children to vote with their feet (leave school districts with which they are dissatisfied) is severely constrained for low-income populations that are most likely to find themselves served by low-performing schools. This lack of geographical mobility for large segments of the population undermines the competitive pressure that low-performing schools and school districts would otherwise expect to face in the context of fiscal federalism, (pg. 5-6).

The problem is not local control, but the special interests that control school bureaucracies.  As I have said I agree with their goal – more school choice and parental sovereignty in making that choice.  I also agree that education dollars should follow the student, not dictate where a student must go.  They advocate keeping the layer of special interests by maintaining a federal role in the process.  The Federal government thereby becomes a special interest.  The problem with this is that administrations and goals of each administration will change.  We have seen this with the Bush and Obama administrations.  President George W. Bush while increasing federal involvement (one of his administration’s flaws) was at least friendly to choice.  President Barack Obama on the other hand has advanced it even further without being friendly to choice.   What will happen in the future?

The top down approach will not work in the long-term if our goal is to be an advocate for school choice.  On page 60 they advocate a carrots and sticks approach, but again that approach can be applied differently under a different administration.

What they advocate, and again I agree with their goal of increasing choice for parents, is best done at the state level while working to get the Federal government out of the education business (keeping the education dollars at home).  They have some great ideas, which I believe can be applied at a state by state level.  I also believe this would be easier to accomplish on a state by state basis.  You don’t have to throw local control under the bus to accomplish education reform through school choice.

You can read their white paper below:

Choice and Federalism


Originally posted at American Principles in Action

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