Commentary: The Failed Promise of Local Control {#iBelieve}

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Locally run schools offer a legacy of racial segregation, funding inequity and academic mediocrity.

By Peter Cunningham ContributorMarch 23, 2018, at 10:00 a.m.
As federal data shows, low income kids of color and students with special needs are far more likely to be suspended or expelled than middle-class white kids.

THE NEW FEDERAL education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, was supposed to unleash a wave of innovation by getting Uncle Sam off the backs of state and local educators and restoring local control. Guess what? It doesn’t look like they are doing much of anything new or different. By some accounts, they are retreating.


That’s the view of local control champion Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. In an especially candid moment, she recently told state education chiefs, “ESSA was enacted partially in response to the widespread calls from state school chiefs to give you the flexibility and opportunity to address your state’s unique challenges…Well, this law gives you that chance. The trouble is, I don’t see much evidence that you’ve yet seized it.”

That’s also the conclusion of an independent review of all 50 state ESSA plans by D.C. think tanks Bellwether Education Partners and the Collaborative for Student Success.

“Unfortunately, we found that states were not taking full advantage of the opportunities ESSA presented. Instead, with…few exceptions…we found state ESSA plans to be mostly uncreative, unambitious, unclear, or unfinished…It does not inspire confidence that states chose not to submit plans that advanced educational opportunities in bold and innovative ways for all students.”


The Bellwether report affirms one important point: federal accountability, under the current law and its predecessor, No Child Left Behind, is a “floor,” not a ceiling. Nothing stops states, districts or schools from going beyond the letter or the spirit of the law and being more innovative with accountability.

Some of the best, like Massachusetts, set higher standards long before the federal government required it. In the 2000s, Chicago began closing low-performing schools that defied all efforts to improve, although no one required it.

Even reform-resistant New York City Mayor Bill deBlasio finally closed down chronically struggling schools after spending hundreds of millions to save them. Again, he isn’t required to do it but he realizes it’s the only humane, defensible response. Children can’t wait years for school to improve and most parents won’t wait – they vote with their feet.

Today, states are still free to set their own standards as long as they meet some vague definition of “college and career-ready.” Districts can intervene in low-performing schools or evaluate teachers based on any criteria they set, close or open new schools as they see fit, and define accountability any way they like as long as it meets the floor set by the state.

Despite all this flexibility, the promise of local control fails to deliver. Instead, local control offers a legacy of racial segregation, funding inequity and academic mediocrity.

In every important metric of success from student achievement to access to rigorous classes to high school and college completion, stubborn racial and economic gaps remain. The plain fact is that local control and quality control rarely go hand-in-hand.

Thanks to local control, school systems remain overly dependent on property taxes for funding, which guarantees they will never be funded equally. Wealthy communities will always have more; poor communities will always have less.

Thanks to locally established school attendance boundaries tied to segregated housing patterns, schools will remain radically segregated by income and race. Efforts to integrate public schools have been all but abandoned by school districts except in a few places, largely because of local pushback that led to lawsuits and adverse court rulings.

Because of local control, we have extreme disparities in how discipline is practiced. As federal data shows, low income kids of color and students with special needs are far more likely to be suspended or expelled than middle-class white kids. Thanks to local control, our teachers are overwhelmingly white while more than half the students are of color.

Accountability and innovation are symbiotic. The pressure to improve stimulates creativity and gives birth to new ideas, whether that’s higher standards, better curriculum, parent choice or personalized learning. The absence of accountability breeds complacency.

The best hope for education is a deeper partnership among governments at all levels and educators at the local level to aim high, think boldly and work hard. It’s not enough to just set the floor and leave the rest to local control.


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