Friday, October 24, 2008

First, Kill All the School Boards

Why is local control such a failure when applied to our schools?
  • We’re two decades into the standards movement in this country, and standards are still different by classroom, by school, by district, and by state.
  • If you thought President Bush’s 2001 No Child Left Behind legislation was fixing these problems, think again.
  • The lack of uniform evaluation creates a “tremendous risk of delusion about how well children are actually doing.
  • Local control has kept education from attracting the research and development that drives progress, because benefits of scale are absent.
  • While teachers’ unions have become more sophisticated and have smarter people who are better-equipped and -prepared at the table, the quality of school-board members, particularly in urban areas, has decreased.
  • The dirty little secret of local control is the enormous tax advantage it confers on better-off Americans: communities with high property wealth can tax themselves at low rates and still generate far more dollars per pupil than poor communities taxing themselves heavily.
  • What of school boards? In an ideal world, we would scrap them—especially in big cities, where most poor children live.
  • We need to give schools one set of national expectations, free educators and parents to collaborate locally in whatever ways work, and get everything else out of the way.

This is the causal chain argued by Matt Miller, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the author of The Two Percent Solution: Fixing America’s Problems in Ways Liberals and Conservatives Can Love (2003). Miller is also the host of KCRW's weekly political chat show, and one of my regular podcasts, "Left, Right and Center." Miller holds down the middle (shown far right - with Tony Blankley, Robert Shearer and Ariana Huffington).

A modest proposal to fix the schools by Matt Miller in the Atlantic Monthly:

Our system is, more than anything, an artifact of our Colonial past. For the religious dissenters who came to the New World, literacy was essential to religious freedom, enabling them to teach their own beliefs. Religion and schooling moved in tandem across the Colonies. Many people who didn’t like what the local minister was preaching would move on and found their own church, and generally their own school.

This preference for local control of education dovetailed with the broader ethos of the American Revolution and the Founders’ distrust of distant, centralized authority. Education was left out of the Constitution; in the 10th Amendment, it is one of the unnamed powers reserved for the states, which in turn passed it on to local communities. Eventually the United States would have 130,000 school districts, most of them served by a one-room school. These little red schoolhouses, funded primarily through local property taxes, became the iconic symbols of democratic American learning.

Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, nothing really challenged this basic structure. Eventually many rural districts were consolidated, and the states assumed a greater role in school funding; since the 1960s, the federal government has offered modest financial aid to poorer districts as well. But neither these steps, nor the standards-based reform movement inspired by A Nation at Risk, brought significant change.

Many reformers across the political spectrum agree that local control has become a disaster for our schools. But the case against it is almost never articulated. Public officials are loath to take on powerful school-board associations and teachers’ unions; foundations and advocacy groups, who must work with the boards and unions, also pull their punches. For these reasons, as well as our natural preference for having things done nearby, support for local control still lingers, largely unexamined, among the public...

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