From NSBA, Local control under siege

The ability of local boards to control the destiny of their own schools, rooted in the establishment of one-room school houses in America’s rural farming communities, is under siege on several fronts, a panel of experts warned in a presentation Saturday titled School Boards’ Last Stand.

Threats to local control often are characterized as educational reform, the panelists said, and they include: charter schools, bids for mayoral control, voucher programs, virtual charter schools, for-profit school operators, state and federal funding tied to adoption of specific programs and approaches, and efforts to standardize curriculum and textbooks.

“We are rapidly becoming the educational equivalent of local McDonald’s franchises,” said David Little, director of governmental affairs for the New York State School Boards Association. “It will feed you, but it’s not the optimal meal.”

Historically, Little traced the trend to the time when individual states began putting the obligation to provide sound education to all students into their constitutions. While it stemmed from noble intentions and gave birth to statewide funding programs for schools, it also opened the first door to outside intervention.

State governments now are joined by the federal government, which has found ways to exercise more control by tying school funding to programs and behavior, Little said. A recent example of the trend was the federal No Child Left Behind Act – followed by Race to the Top funding. Both pushed states and districts to adopt curriculum standards, student testing, and teacher accountability measures as a condition of receiving federal money.

“It’s tough to find a representative who doesn’t think they know better than you,” Little said, and the inevitable result is a homogenization of curriculum. “It doesn’t matter if you are in Maine or Montana. If it’s Tuesday, we’re all on page 256.”

Leanne Winner, director of governmental affairs for the North Carolina School Boards Association, pointed to the establishment of charter schools, virtual charter schools, and so-called parent trigger provisions to convert public schools to charter schools as among the boldest and most dangerous threats to public education.

Particularly in states where public money follows students who transfer from public to charter schools, “it builds up a great resentment” between local boards and charter school proponents, Winner said.

The push for charters also has created a resegregation of schools along socioeconomic, racial, and achievement lines, Winner argued.

Little said parent trigger proposals have been particularly troubling in New York, where there is concern that a simple majority of parents of current students could spark transformation of a school that is not in the interest of the larger community.

“The people invested in a school go beyond the parents of current students,” Little said.

Cathy Woodruff