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Getting to the Bottom of Who Controls Your School

The United States loves the idea of local control of schools. The annual Phi Delta Kappan/Gallup "Poll of the Public's Attitudes Toward the Public Schools" finds that 56 percent of respondents believed local school boards should have the greatest influence on what schools teach. Local citizens banding together to educate their children seems like the prototypical participatory democracy that is so central to our collective political imagination. The idea of local control also fits nicely with many parents’ desires to ensure that their children’s education matches their values.

Contemporary local officials have never known a world in which they enjoyed an unchallenged or even primary role in governing their schools. In my book, I describe how state and federal governments have imposed a sea of regulations and conditions attached to funding that influences every aspect of public education. Established case law in most states holds that local school districts are creations of state governments, which can adjust their boundaries or even eliminate them as they see fit. State governments exercise wide influence over who can teach, what subjects must be taught, what must be taught in the required subjects, and from which textbooks students may be taught.

For its part, since the 1950s, the federal government has made increasing demands on state and local school officials to protect certain classes of students. Usually, these demands come as conditions attached to federal funding, with Title I and special education funding being the largest contemporary examples.

Speaking of funding, federal and state governments have also stepped up their financial contribution to public education. According to the U.S. Department of Education used 43.5 percent of the total revenue spent on K-12 public education in the United States, with local governments responsible for the rest. In the 2010-11 school year, the state and federal share had risen to 55.7 percent. Despite this increase, most school officials believe that state and federal regulation has outpaced accompanying funding, leaving local school boards to pick up the tab. This dynamic leaves school board, administrators, and teachers, with little funding left to pursue their own independent programs.

Local Control

Despite all of these limitations, local control is not dead. Teachers, administrators, and other local officials may not have exclusive say over what happens in their schools, but they still enjoy several advantages that provide them with a primary voice in shaping the nation’s schools.

Most basically, state and federal officials rely on local educators to turn their policies into the actual education that helps children. Those officials can dictate what students should learn, but teachers retain the discretion on how they teach the required curriculum. Local officials’ leverage as “street-level bureaucrats” allow them to subtly alter state and federal requirements to serve their own aims. Such discretion allows creative, motivated teachers to still teach the required subjects and curriculum while also imparting some of their own beliefs about what children should learn into their lessons. Local administrators also know that state and local governments often grant waivers or other forms of flexibility that allow some districts to implement mandated programs in ways that account for local conditions and serve local goals.

Programs like Title I also provide much-needed funding but allow “wide discretion in determining how the money is to be used.” Since Title I’s inception, school districts have used this funding to explore innovative solutions to help alleviate the effects of poverty while also providing benefits to the overall student body. For example, Johnston Elementary School in Highland, Indiana “wide discretion in determining how the money is to be used.”to pilot a 10-day summer “reading camp” for all kindergarten and first grade students.

A teacher or administrator who wants to increase his/her voice in school decision-making would be wise to view Title I as a model. In almost every state or federal regulation or funding stream, some flexibility exists. Local educators can use this flexibility to make sure their schools provide for the unique needs of their specific student population. The edtech community can best support these efforts by providing tools that make it easier to understand what flexibility is possible within different regulations and funding streams. Tools that allow local officials to more easily understand their budget may also eliminate financial inefficiencies and free up money to allow increased local control.

About the Author

Image of Bryan Shelley Dr. Bryan Shelly is the Founder and President of Advanced Education Measurement. Previously, he has been an Assistant Professor at Wake Forest University, a Data Strategist with the Cleveland Metropolitan School District and the Strategic Data Project, and a third-grade teacher, and classroom aide with City Year Boston. He is the author of Money, Mandates, and Local Control in American Public Education, which discusses these issues in greater detail.