Indiana and Washington keep growing in power
A handful of candidates are running for local school board seats in November’s election. It’s a wonder they bother. State and federal dictates keep diminishing school board autonomy. Why seek a public office with growing responsibility but shrinking authority?
At the federal level, President Bush’s No Child Left Behind has become President Obama’s Race to the Top, the aim of both to bribe or threaten schools with federal dollars to ensure the meeting of federal guidelines. In the process, national standards are emerging, and that will lead eventually to a national curriculum.
Not to be left out, Indiana under Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett is doing its part to make local officials powerless. A Marion County judge this week threw out a state-pushed standard teacher contract that would have been required in all school districts. Undaunted, Bennett lobbied in his State of Education Address for state takeover of poorly performing school districts, not just the individual schools it can currently invade. Whatever you think of Bennett’s individual reform initiatives – and we have written admiringly of many of them – the fact remains that as a package they amount to a much greater role for the state.
Local control of schools has long been the norm in this country – it could even be said to be one of the founding principles. There were a lot of reasons that was the way things developed, including federalism’s distrust of centralized power. In education even more than other endeavors, local leaders have the best knowledge of local problems and opportunities and can therefore make the best decisions for their own parents and children.
But growing concerns about how states stacked up against one another and how this nation compares with others around the world led to more power accumulating at higher levels, where that lack of local knowledge leads to cookie-cutter policies and one-size-fits-all dictates. During that evolutionary change, we seem to have lost the national consensus we once had on the purpose of a public education. Is it just to turn out competent job seekers or college freshmen? Or does it serve some higher good?
Perhaps the evolution has gone so far that rolling back the clock is impossible. Or perhaps local control is no longer desirable in our increasingly competitive world. Surely this is something worthy of more debate than it’s getting. The contest between Obama and Mitt Romney has ignited a discussion about how much Washington control there should be over other areas of our lives. We need to talk about this area, too.