From the NEPC at the University of Colorado, Boulder:
BOULDER, CO October 16, 2012 – “Local control” has been a bedrock principle of public schooling in America since its earliest days, but a new report concludes the concept “has all but disappeared” in discussions of education policy.
The report, Democracy Left Behind: How Recent Education Reforms Undermine Local School Governance and Democratic Education, by Kenneth Howe and David Meens of the University of Colorado Boulder, examines the impact on democratic ideals of vanishing local control over education. The report examines the making of education policy as well as the decisions about what schools teach and how they teach it.
The report is published today by the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) at the University of Colorado Boulder.
In a healthy democracy, schools play a key role in preparing citizens. A healthy democracy also depends on citizens engaged in democratic governance. And since schools sit at the center of most communities, local democratic control over schooling has long been highly valued in the United States.
Howe and Meens describe local control as “the power of communities, made up of individuals bound together by common geography, resources, problems and interests, to collectively determine the policies that govern their lives.” As regards schooling, this typically refers to control by elected school boards and their constituents.
Yet the No Child Left Behind Act and subsequent federal policy has forced a surrender of local control. The local role under these systems is largely to be held accountable by state and federal officials. While local discretion is allowed for how to comply with state and federal mandates, the constraints imposed by those mandates have been enormous. Consequently, Howe and Meens contend, NCLB and its progeny have been fundamentally anti-democratic.
The same is true of the reform policies that have been advanced by President Obama and Education Secretary Duncan. “Despite Obama and Duncan’s rhetorical support for greater local control of schools, the reform instruments that their policies are based on are clearly antithetical to it,” the authors write. They point in particular to Race to the Top, which puts states in competition with one another for federal funds to induce them to expand testing, including using student test scores as a substantial portion of teacher evaluation, and to expand the number of charter schools.
Howe and Meens explain the importance of a balance between local control and federal and state regulation. In a democracy, there is a presumption of local control, which may be overridden when it has undemocratic consequences, as in de jure segregation. But such a justification does not exist for the recent federal education policy take-over.
The authors also warn that current reform approaches are marginalizing community involvement. “Democratic reform should involve local stakeholders, especially marginalized members of society, because inclusion is a democratic value that increases not only the likelihood that policies will be just, but also the likelihood that reform will succeed,” Howe and Meens write. “Such inclusion also helps create the conditions in which all students can attain the democratic threshold.”
They conclude with a series of recommendations, urging schools and education policymakers to take three key steps.
- First, move away from a punitive model based on threats to withhold funding. This should be replaced by a participatory model – such as support and incentives for school employees, parents and community members to collaborate together on resolving educational problems.
- Second, encourage states and local communities to adopt curriculum standards “that include a conscious and substantive focus on developing the deliberative skill and dispositions required of democratic citizenship.”
- Third, curtail the privatization of public education resources. Instead, build up democratic values by holding schools receiving public funds accountable to the public through democratically elected school boards and other democratic institutions.
Find Democracy Left Behind: How Recent Education Reforms Undermine Local School Governance and Democratic Education, by Kenneth Howe and David Meens, on the web at
The mission of the National Education Policy Center is to produce and disseminate high-quality, peer-reviewed research to inform education policy discussions. We are guided by the belief that the democratic governance of public education is strengthened when policies are based on sound evidence. For more information on NEPC, please visit http://nepc.colorado.edu/.
This policy brief was made possible in part by the support of the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice (greatlakescenter.org).