Want To Empower Parents in Public Education?  Here Are the Bureaucracies That Have To Go

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2018/06/09/want-to-empower-parents-in-public-education-here-are-the-bureaucracies-that-have-to-go/

We are regularly told what the public or Congress or schools should do to increase school safety and prevent more school shootings.  We even have a former U.S. Secretary of Education (Arne Duncan) suggesting that high school students not attend school until schools have been made safer for them. (See here or here.)

But no one tells parents how to secure greater local control than they now feel they have and change the conditions under which K-12 students are educated, tested, and evaluated in our public schools today.  In fact, whoever wrote the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) seemed to be trying to discourage states from allowing parents to opt their children out of mandated federal/state tests even though parents have a right to do so and do not need permission from anyone.

A state’s choice of how to address the consequences of opting out was part of the “flexibility” that was supposed to be a feature of the State Plan required in the Every Student Succeeds Act for school districts with low-income students to get Title I funds.  Federal officials at the U.S. Department of Education apparently suggested to Colorado that students who did not take mandated tests be marked as “non-proficient”; in other words, their parents would indirectly be punished for exercising their right in this country to opt out their children from a mandated federal/state test. That was the gist of the federal response to the Colorado State Board of Education’s attempt to allow parents to continue exercising their opt-out rights.

The situation in Colorado is doubly ironic because neither federal nor state officials, whether elected or appointed, have constitutional or statutory authority to make or suggest policy about opt-outs or to set consequences for opting out. The consequences for opting out is a matter for locally elected education officials. What is worse, even though the federal government has no constitutional authority to advise states and local districts on any education policy, including policies for opt-outs, the federal Every Student Succeeds Act even tells states how report cards should look.

So, what does local control look like? Let us begin with possible examples. Let’s say a group of parents ask the principals of their town’s elementary schools and their locally elected school board to develop advanced and remedial mathematics classes in grade 5 for fast and slow learners in their schools. Then, let’s say, parents who plan to opt their elementary children out of a federal/state mandated test ask their school board to ensure appropriate instruction for them on testing and pre-testing days. A superintendent or curriculum director arranges for elementary school principals to experiment with a subject-divided day for teaching mathematics and science for all grades 5 and 6 classes, using subject-knowledgeable elementary teachers already teaching self-contained classes to teach those subjects. A high school principal, supported by the local superintendent and school board, gives time to the school’s teachers of mathematics, science, and English to work out and implement various levels of difficulty for courses in grades 9 or 10 in their subject, using student choice, prior performance, and teacher recommendations as criteria for enrollment in the most advanced levels.

Are the above activities examples of local control? Can they all take place today? If not, why not?  

Perhaps it is not clear what is meant by local control. One can look at current definitions to find out what today’s educators think.  But the definition of local control in a glossary of terms for education reform may confuse, not help, readers. The February 18, 2016 version of The Glossary of Education Reform, by the Great Schools Partnership and funded largely by the Nellie Mae Foundation and the Education Writers Association, defines “local control” as follows:  “Local control refers to (1) the governing and management of public schools by governing bodies that are located in the communities served by the schools and (2) the degree to which local leaders, institutions, and governing bodies can make independent or autonomous decisions about the governance and operation of public schools.” In this definition, the location of the governing body (in the local community) is a major feature of local control. Presumably, access by parents or others to the governing board is viewed as crucial.

Nevertheless, its first example of “local control” (“regional school boards”) is confusing. It does not distinguish between (A) a regional high school with a governing board composed of elected/appointed people from the towns sending high school-age students to that regional high school, or a governing board for several elementary schools composed of elected people from only the town in which the schools are located and (B) a regional board appointed by the governor, such as for Delaware’s three vocational school district boards. Those three boards in Delaware may well be located in one of the many communities governed by each board but there would seem to be little access to them by most parents – and therefore little “local control.” The governor would appear to control policy-making and the evaluation of its administrators indirectly through appointments to these regional boards for vocational schools. Thus, it appears that some “regional” boards may not facilitate much “local control” despite being located in a community served by a school governed by the board and despite being a theoretical example of “local control.”

Perhaps election of a school board member is the criterion for local control since most local school board members in the country are elected? Indeed, most of the writing on the topic, to judge by Google, suggests that election by voters in a school district, however its boundary lines are determined, is the preferred method across the country. But it is also the case that local school boards can be appointed by the mayor of a city, as in many large cities like Boston; voting parents exercise “local control” by the person they elect as mayor. So the critical feature of a board accessible to the parents of the children attending its schools may not lie in its location or whether the board is elected or appointed or any particular mixture of the two.

Perhaps a critical feature of a local school board is whether a school board, elected or appointed, must approve the appointment of a superintendent and other top administrators. That would explain why the Southern Regional Education Board, a very active agency, is not a local (or regional) school board.  Governors appoint board members. Increasing this regional board’s powers or authority would likely not increase local control by parents but decrease it.

Why does this matter? It matters a great deal if parents and other local citizens who pay about 45% of the costs of public education on average (states pay about another 45% and the federal government less than 10%) want the Every Student Succeeds Act revised or repealed to allow for more “local” control.  The federal act was written in part to provide the appearance that some education policy making was being shifted from the federal government (through the U.S. Department of Education) back to state and local education agencies. But the supposed shift via ESSA was to be carefully monitored by the requirement that a four-year State Plan had to be submitted by a state education agency in its application for Title I money.  A State Plan also had to be approved by peer reviewers appointed by the U.S. Department of Education, not by the state education agency’s state legislature or by local school boards expected by the state to carry out the State Plan. So, the political rhetoric about shifting policy making power away from the federal government was mostly window-dressing. The federal Every Student Succeeds Act does not shift any power or responsibility back to a local education agency where it could be responsive to local parents and taxpayers. Power is placed in the state education agency to do what U.S. Department of Education peer reviewers suggest it do in its application for Title I money. Most states now have approved four-year “state plans,” all unconstitutional.

We can see the beginnings of an attempt at true regionalization of education authority in Maine.  These regional entities are being called “regional service centers.” They claim:  “The ultimate goal is to increase opportunities for students and find ways to be more efficient in the management of school districts.” Whether a true regional authority can be more efficient than a local school can be, in general, and provide more opportunities for students has not been widely demonstrated, if at all, to date.  

What is needed is a real understanding of what local school districts cannot do now, by statute, that they could do, say, 10 years ago?  We also need to know what Congress could do, if anything, to increase local control.  

Perhaps we mainly need local school board members who know what authority they already have, with or without Title I money, and know that the U.S. Department of Education has no constitutional authority to require any specific education policies to receive the approximately 10% federal portion of their school budget Congress gives them, on average.  Federal education officials can audit the use of federal funds in the categories authorized by congressional Appropriation committees.  But that would seem to be all it can do.

Maybe, in addition to eliminating the U.S. Department of Education, aggrieved parents and others need to seek legal ways in each state to eliminate their state board of education and commissioner of education, whether appointed or elected, and put their department of education or public instruction directly under the oversight of a joint state House of Representatives and State Senate Education Committee.  

That would mean in the Bay State getting rid of the board that Horace Mann established in the mid-nineteenth century. But it’s time. It no longer serves most Bay State students well in the 21st century, to judge by recent declines in state test scores for low-achieving groups.  Bay State students as a whole were improving academically before the Massachusetts state board decided it knew better than teachers in its local schools what good standards and tests looked like.  Why keep an outdated and arrogant board in place?


Sandra Stotsky, former senior associate commissioner at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, is professor of education emerita at the University of Arkansas. Read her past columns here.