Kalman Hettleman: The political rhetoric and educational reality of ‘local control’

Advocates posted cardboard cutouts along Lawyers’ Mall in 2021 as lawmakers debated passage of the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future education reform bill. File photo by Elizabeth Shwe.

Once upon a time, the legendary U.S. Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill proclaimed “all politics is local.” Nowhere was this truer than in K-12 classrooms. Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote in a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1974: “No single tradition in public education is more deeply rooted than local control over the operation of schools.”

Those days are long gone. Still, local control remains an incendiary problem in education policy and politics, and could endanger successful implementation of the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, a10-year, multi-billion-dollar education reform plan. Marc Tucker, an expert on schools in high-performing countries and the principal architect of the Blueprint, has written that, if school reform is to succeed, the “U S. will have to largely abandon the beloved emblem of American education: local control.”

That doesn’t mean that all local control should be abandoned. It does mean that state and local educators must get their act together to a far greater degree than they ever have. There must be trust and collaborative problem-solving within the boundaries set by state (and federal) laws. Unfortunately, this urgent reality is rarely heard or understood above the roar of rhetoric (on the political left and right) and diehard resistance by some local control partisans.

Right now, tension is building as the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) and the 24 local school systems face off in the implementation of the Blueprint. But such tension is hardly new. It has been around for decades, largely as a result of federal laws like Title I (with its offshoots including the extinct No Child Left Behind Act and the current Every Student Succeeds Act) and the Individuals with Disabilities Act.

These laws require states — willing or not — to set far-reaching limits on local autonomy.

On top of these federal mandates, states enact their own legislation that further erodes local control. The sweeping Blueprint is an obvious example. All told, MSDE is entrusted with “general control and supervision over public schools.”

Of course, that’s easier said than done. Local educators often deny MSDE’s scope of authority, viewing state regulation and direction as insensitive to local conditions and infringements on their professionalism. More surprising, MSDE sometimes denies its own authority, seeking to pass the buck on hot button policy and practice issues and thereby avoid local wrath.

There is vast room for collaboration, but the proverbial devil is in the degree of devolution of state control to local districts.

To strike the right balance, Maryland can draw upon a primer by the Council of Chief State School Officers. For starters, MSDE, in reviewing local applications for federal and state aid, should spell out up front detailed guidance on evidence-based best practices: not just bare lists of programs but manuals and other tools for implementation. And then offer user-friendly, nuts and bolts staff training on them.

Further, there must be requirements for uniform data collection and state monitoring. Without uniform data, MSDE can’t effectively evaluate whether programs are working as they’re supposed to. And state monitoring merits special attention: MSDE must raise its game and stiffen its spine. In the past MSDE has almost always conducted compliance (check-the-boxes) monitoring without in-depth observations and evaluations that might ruffle local feathers.

This may sound like a lot of “inside baseball.” Nonetheless, robust state engagement is indispensable. For example, in a laudable initiative, State Superintendent Mohammad Choudhury has begun to offer financial carrots to local districts that use evidence-based best practices, most notably “the science of reading.” Yet, sticks are also needed: too many educators in Maryland (and nationally) are science-deniers on how to teach reading.

The nature of state involvement also depends, practically speaking, on the size of local districts. An extensive state role is unavoidable for the many small school systems in Maryland which lack the administrative capacity to carry out a multitude of complex tasks.

So what control is left for all locals? A lot. Consider: local school districts can hire and fire superintendents, school principals, and staff up and down the line; choose among evidence-based programs; manage school facilities and security; set school climate including high expectations; and engage parents and communities. In every school nook and cranny, including teaching in the classroom, there’s ample space for locals to modify and innovate within state regulatory boundaries.

Bottom line: state requirements are the floor not the ceiling for local leadership. As a general rule, usually pursuant to federal laws and grants, state officials determine what standards locals must meet while locals have plenty of latitude in how the standards are met.

Local educators generally get it. They’ll actually welcome state requirements and guidance that is do-able and aligned with resources. That’s what the Blueprint is all about. If MSDE (and the Blueprint Accountability and Implementation Board) do their jobs right, local schools will be properly empowered to do theirs right too.

There will be much less blame game over local control and much more student success.

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