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.
No problem left behind
Why is local control such a failure when applied to our schools? After all, political decentralization has often served America well, allowing decisions to be made close to where their impact would be felt. But in education, it has spawned several crippling problems:
No way to know how children are doing. “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,” says Tom Vander Ark, who headed the education program at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation from 1999 through 2006. “Most teachers in America still pretty much teach whatever they want.”
If you thought President Bush’s 2001 No Child Left Behind legislation was fixing these problems, think again. True, NCLB requires states to establish standards in core subjects and to test children in grades 3–8 annually, with the aim of making all students “proficient” by 2014. But by leaving standards and definitions of “proficiency” to state discretion, it has actually made matters worse. The Proficiency Illusion, a report released in October by the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, details how. “‘Proficiency’ varies wildly from state to state, with ‘passing scores’ ranging from the 6th percentile to the 77th,” the researchers found:
Congress erred big-time when NCLB assigned each state to set its own standards and devise and score its own tests … this study underscores the folly of a big modern nation, worried about its global competitiveness, nodding with approval as Wisconsin sets its eighth-grade reading passing level at the 14th percentile while South Carolina sets its at the 71st percentile.
The lack of uniform evaluation creates a “tremendous risk of delusion about how well children are actually doing,” says Chris Cerf, the deputy chancellor of schools in New York City. That delusion makes it far more difficult to enact reforms—and even to know where reforms are needed. “Schools may get an award from their state for high performance, and under federal guidelines they may be targeted for closure for low performance,” Vander Ark says. This happens in California, he told me, all the time.