Local Control over Schools: Good or Bad?

As the new school year started in 2020—last year, before a whole boatload of scientific information was confirmed, or vaccinations rolled out—I got into a Twitter spat with a man whose thinking and scholarship I respect.

He was advocating for all public schools in the United States, or at least his state, to be closed, all instruction taking place online. This was never going to happen–remember who was President a year ago?—but his point was that mandating remote education would save countless lives, many of them children and their teachers.

An excellent point. My counter point was that the case numbers and infection rate were low in my county—and internet connectivity and infrastructure even lower. Lots of students had no access to devices, and even if districts purchased Chromebooks or iPads, there was no broadband to run them. The previous spring, when schools were closed by gubernatorial order, teachers here distributed stapled-together work packets to students along with five days’ worth of breakfasts and lunches.

We Twitter-argued, back and forth, for days, about who should be making these decisions.

He would say: Your state or county should make affordable broadband a priority. I would say: We have been working on that with our recalcitrant, pro-privatization County Commission for over a decade. In the meantime, until that problem is solved, kids won’t have access to school or their teachers.

He would say: School buses with wi-fi! I would say: District is 168 square miles of hills and valleys—not even close to enough school buses!

Other educators would drop into the ongoing squabble. Mostly, they were teachers who felt that widespread, mandated remote learning was the only thing that would keep kids safe.

It seemed to me, then, that local decision-making was key to flattening the curve while balancing the needs of schoolkids. That assuming what was right for your school division or state would not necessarily be right for a school on the other side of the country. That we needed to trust school leaders to make the right choices, with input from their unique communities.

Today, I’m not so sure.

Because I grew up in a pro-union household in the flagship state of the UAW, I assumed, when I started teaching, that locally controlled and negotiated policies were ideal. We should be able to determine things like curriculum, testing, hiring and firing, whether to allow baseball caps, etc. etc. We knew best how to use the resources raised by taxing the citizens of our community.

Ironically, the few things that were state-mandated back then were mostly health- and safety-related: Annual TB tests for teachers. Vaccinations for kids before they were admitted to kindergarten.  Teachers’ legal obligation to report signs of abuse or self-harm. Seat belts and load limits on buses.

If something was critical enough to public well-being, you’d find it in the Michigan school code. The rest was up to school officials and a locally elected board. As it should be.

The person who disabused me of that notion was Renee Moore, an exemplary educator who taught in Detroit before moving to the Mississippi Delta. She pointed out that many local officials and educators did not have the best interests of all students in mind—that in fact, state and federal policies were essential to the pursuit of equity for traditionally underserved public schools and their students. And always had been.

This was a moment when my own clueless privilege smacked me upside the head. If the government didn’t establish rules around school safety, adequacy and equity, who would?

As Heather Cox Richardson noted:

For all that Republicans today insist that individualism is the heart of Americanism, in fact the history of federal protection of the common good began in the 1860s with their own ancestors, led by Abraham Lincoln, who wrote: “The legitimate object of government, is to do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but can not do, at all, or can not, so well do, for themselves—in their separate, and individual capacities.”

Clearly, relying on state and federal government is not the key to student safety and well-being in August 2021—because some state leaders and state legislators are feckless and our window for tapping into federally provided guidance, resources or unity was slammed shut in 2020.

All the devils are loose, and we’re dependent on those separate and individual capacities, plus the relevant evidence and a big dose of courage. The feds can’t save us. We don’t have a policy problem; we have deliberate misinformation and compliance problems.

We’re dependent on people like this guy, a school superintendent in mid-Michigan who is mandating masks even though he’s received irate and threatening phone calls:  ‘I do not have the same scientific skills as some people who work in the state health department. But if somebody else is uncomfortable making a decision, if I have a reasonable support group around me who believe the same way, I don’t have a problem making that decision.’

Good for you, sir—and thanks for taking the heat, and demonstrating local control at its core: Should I make an unpopular decision if I believe it may save lives? Yes.

Local board-meeting meltdowns make clear that good school policy is more than majority-rule. But effective top-down policy also depends on who is at the top.

4 Comments

  1. I live in a state where the governor said that local school districts (five of the districts have larger populations than the ten smallest states) cannot mandate mask-wearing. Ten of the 67 districts, representing more than half the population, defied the order. He threatened to withhold their salaries. A state judge this week said the governor does not have that authority. It will be appealed. Meanwhile, the governor spends more time on his favorite TV network (because he plans to be President or Trump’s running mate in 2024) than with his lieutenant governor and medical advisors combined.

    If we had competent state government, I might not be such an advocate for local control. Some local boards will choose wrong, but better that than the state force all to do wrong.

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    1. Thanks for your comment. It illustrates, perfectly, the danger in making governors or Congress (or the President) in charge of local policies. I have great admiration for the school superintendents in FL who have refused to comply with DeSantis. Here in MI, the governor shut down the state last spring (correctly, I believe), and so the legislature stripped her of her emergency powers (plus a group of yahoos were planning to kidnap and execute her, so there’s that). So it’s hard to blame her for not trying to implement top-down policy that would mandate universal masking.

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  2. When misinformation and disinformation have gained so much power over the dissemination of news, the discussion over who should control what becomes even murkier. Do we really want people who are taking horse dewormer to prevent or cure Covid-19 as an alternative to a medically proven alternative, to be in charge of anything? Do we really want those complicit media talking heads or politicians to be in charge? When will sanity return to the universe?

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    1. I know, right? When writing the piece, it became evident to me that neither local control or top-down regulation of All Things Education were optimum. Some things (that baseball cap, for example–and, I would argue, curriculum) are best handled by the district or building leadership. Others (the choice between open exposure to a deadly virus or a collection of mandated protections) might be handled further up. Except for the really bad track record of the higher-ups. Not sure the universe was ever fully sane. But we CAN do better.

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