Local control is hobbling our schools

Don’t look for author Matt Miller to be a featured speaker at any school board conferences for a while, not after his recent, much-discussed Atlantic Monthly article entitled “First, Kill All the School Boards." Miller’s scathing but compelling piece represents a rare frontal assault on one of the biggest sacred cows of American education: local control of schools. His basic thesis is that American education reform is doomed to failure as long as we continue to insist on allowing 15,000 independent school districts to essentially do whatever they want regarding standards, curriculum and accountability for same. He correctly points out that the U.S. is virtually unique in this obsession with local control, and that it is the main reason why all other industrial nations run rings around us in almost every known measure of academic achievement.

In describing these dismal facts about U.S. non-competitiveness Miller echoes arguments made by Thomas Friedman’s book, The World is Flat, which warned of the heavy economic price our children and grandchildren will pay for the current generation’s education folly.

Miller also marshals the support of a credible array of prominent reformers who explain why public officials, foundations, and advocacy groups are “loath to take on powerful school-board associations and teacher unions." Says Tom Vander Ark, former education head of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, “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." He further adds that “Most teachers in America still pretty much teach whatever they want."

Marc Tucker, author of the widely hailed report “Tough Choices, or Tough Times,” which won enthusiastic support among Colorado leaders such as House Speaker Andrew Romanoff and former Governor Roy Romer, similarly decries how local control is hobbling our schools, and is “uncharacteristic of the countries with the best performance."

It is sobering to reflect on the disasters that have befallen all those who dared challenge the local control taboo.

In the mid-nineties Bill Clinton courageously called for a “Voluntary National Test” and was almost immediately hammered into submission in memorably bipartisan fashion by Republicans who denounced the “national” part while Democrats ripped the “test” part.

A little later George Bush ambitiously launched his No Child Left Behind Act, but in order to round up enough votes to pass the thing he made the fatal concession of allowing every state to invent their own standards, their own test and even their own “passing scores.”

Here in Colorado, Bill Owens with his Realignment Council proclaimed the need for consistently high standards statewide, but ultimately bowed to the political ruckus stirred up in the legislature and the districts by the defenders of local control.

Today Bill Ritter and his P-20 Council are promising to totally redesign standards to deliver high skills for the high tech economy, but just as Bush thought he had learned from Clinton’s mistake, Ritter believes he has avoided Owens’s error by pledging at the outset to “honor local control” -- thereby giving away the whole game even before it begins.

Of late Colorado has seen much attention given to “school autonomy” as a means of energizing lagging reform efforts. Marc Tucker highly praises the approach of other nations where “you’re struck immediately…by a sense of autonomy on the part of school staff and principal that you don’t find in the United States” but he stresses that their success is absolutely dependent on the existence of national standards. Similarly Matt Miller makes an urgent plea 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”.

It is precisely this kind of collaboration that could be a legitimate expression of local control, but not the mindless notion that 15,000 different approaches to reading standards is somehow okay. As Colorado stands poised for yet another futile exercise in “standards reinvention” we should at least be honest enough to acknowledge the exorbitant price our children and our state will pay for our slavish attachment to a hopelessly outdated concept of local control.

Dr. Moloney was Colorado Education Commissioner, 1997-2007