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GOP convention commentary: Is obsession with local control of public education out of control?

Guest contributor | July 19, 2016

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#EDlection2016A new RNC dispatch from Peter Cunningham, executive director of Education Post:

If Republican conservatives stand for one thing above all else when it comes to public education, it is local control. Just as some conservatives see tax cuts as the only answer to an ailing economy, some also see local control as the antidote to everything wrong with schools. Yet, the evidence for local control as a strategy to improve schools is weak, at best.

Consider standards. By law, the federal government is prohibited from setting learning standards and, historically, states have set them all over the place. To their credit, governors and state education leaders on both sides of the aisle came together and created the Common Core State Standards, believing that common standards across state lines make sense.

• Read more on the live blog: The 74 and Bellwether Education Partners are partnering to cover both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions.

But, after the federal government offered incentives to adopt the standards, local control zealots fought back and prompted some states to abandon the standards they helped create, including Indiana, the home state of the Republican Vice Presidential candidate Mike Pence. Ambitious, common standards may be good for kids and for American competitiveness, but they now violate conservative principles. The quality of the standards is, of course, irrelevant.

Look at integration. Sixty-two years after the Supreme Court ruled segregated schools illegal, local control has undermined most efforts to promote integration in the world’s most racially diverse country. Today, our schools are more segregated than ever.

When it comes to innovation in education, conservatives often point to charter schools, which are authorized at the state and local level. But the biggest threat to charter schools is not centralized oversight, but rather its absence. While the best charters have closed achievement gaps, on average only a third out-perform traditional neighborhood schools. The real problem facing charters is quality control and local control does little to address it.

The accountability argument against local control also applies to traditional public schools. Until the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2001, there was no real accountability in public education. Low-performing schools languished for decades. Graduation rates in thousands of high schools serving low-income students hovered around 50 percent.

For the last 15 years, the federal government has forced states and districts to provide objective proof that kids are learning and to take action when they aren’t. Alas, under the new federal education law passed in 2015, local control zealots on the right conspired with the left to weaken federal oversight of schools.

On issue after issue – teacher training and evaluation, curriculum, funding equity – local control trumps fairness and quality, but don’t expect to hear any complaints at the Republican convention in Cleveland.

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