Congress Take Note: Local Control Vital to Good Education

By Marc Gerson

As the House and Senate conferees finalize their work on education, they should respect the American tradition of local control of our schools.

Local control is deeply rooted in the United States; it far predates the Federal Government. Massachusetts created the forerunner of the public school system when, in 1647, it required that each township of at least 50 households hire a schoolteacher.

In addition to the pragmatic success of creating a better-educated citizenry than even England had, the Massachusetts system firmly established the idea that local money should fund local education, under local control.

The ideals that reinforced the school's value to society also reinforced the importance of local control. The Founders, Thomas Jefferson especially, recognized the importance of imparting the skills, knowledge, and attitude necessary to enable citizens to participate effectively in the governance of the young Republic, so that it might endure and flourish.

Centralized control of education, however, would have been so inimical to early republican values that the idea was never even seriously proposed; local control was considered necessary.

Indeed, it would take more than 200 years - until 1979 - till the Republic would see a Cabinet-level Secretary of Education. Continued local control was essential for freedom and self-government.

After all, the early Americans reasoned, federal control and standardization of education would lead to a less effective republic, as citizens came to share the same attitudes - those endorsed by the federal government.

Instead, the federal government was never given authority over education in order that citizens could hold it accountable by criticism from diverse perspectives. Even without centralization, public schools greatly impacted American society; they became a key agent of socialization.

Public schools cultivated common values, loyalties, and an American identity in children from a variety of backgrounds, especially as children acquired fluency in English and acquired an American culture distinct from that of their immigrant parents.

At the same time, public schools avoided being marred by the appearance of being an instrument of indoctrination or forced assimilation, precisely because they were tailored to the needs of the local community.

Immigrant suspicion of the assimilating function of public schools was mitigated by local control. After all, locally directed schools tailor their services to the specific needs and ideals of the communities they served.

German immigrant communities, for example, preserved some aspects of ethnic culture by emphasizing the teaching of German in schools, while also providing a significant Americanizing experience. Thus, immigrants' ability to control local education helped them to overcome the barriers of hostility imposed by the majority.

In this way, local control enabled public schools to function as the starting point for the American Dream. Farmers and trade unionists saw public schools as institutions that served their needs and enabled the economic and social advancement of their children.

Critically, locally controlled schools resonated with the American ethos of self-reliance; the schools, under the authority of local decision-makers, were neither a handout nor were they imposed by a higher central authority.

Unfortunately, current federal policy produces quite the opposite: a disorganized system of handouts that imposes significant burdens on local schools. This inflexible system implicitly distrusts local decision-makers.

Instead of adding to the record of failure and relying upon federal bureaucrats to write education rules for local schools, those dedicated public servants who actually help students daily should be granted the increased flexibility that their students need.

While real education spending has risen 22.8% in the last 20 years, standardized test scores have remained mostly stagnant. That is, since its inception as a Cabinet-level agency, the Department of Education has presided over 20 years of declining educational productivity.

The solution cannot be more of the same; we must instead lessen federal control so that local schools can put more money into the programs they need - whether they decide it be higher teacher salaries, technology, smaller classrooms, or safety - and put less money into complying with federal red tape.

The president's education bill does exactly that: it encourages local schools and states to use up to half of their federal money for improving local results for students.

After all, schools both within each state and the nation face pressing, though different, needs. Local schools can best be expected to meet those needs if they are united and focused: they must fully and creatively utilize their resources, without being hobbled by a disorganized array of special federal programs.

Unfortunately, the Senate bill is engorged by inflexible, unrequested programs, creating 49 more than the House does. The solution ought to be clear to the conferees. Let's trust and empower America's local schools, which always have been our traditional laboratories of innovation.