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Nationalize the Schools (…A Little)!

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“Local control” is the most sacred principle in American education—a tradition so deeply ingrained in history and practice that its shortcomings are almost never articulated. Yet a look at the history of local control as the organizing principle of schooling suggests that an approach that made perfect sense in the 1700s is crippling American education today.

In the 25 years since “A Nation At Risk” sounded the alarm about the rising tide of mediocrity in our schools, America’s strategy in response, if it can be called that, has been dictated by some 15,000 school districts, with help more recently from the 50 states. It’s as if FDR had said we could put the U.S. economy on a war footing after Pearl Harbor by relying on the uncoordinated efforts of thousands of small factories. They’d know what kind of planes and tanks were needed, right? The results have been predictable. Despite good intentions and pockets of improvement, we have made little progress in raising most students’ achievement to the levels now required to compete in an increasingly global world and to maintain Americans’ living standards in the coming era of competition with workers in places like China and India. We spend more than nearly every other advanced nation on schools, yet we rank in the middle to bottom on international achievement comparisons.

Whatever its successes in the past, local control today assures four major problems:

Financial Inequality: Thanks to localized sources of school funding, the gap between what is spent in wealthy states and districts and poorer ones routinely tops $5,000 and sometimes reaches $10,000 per pupil. This helps to explain why America systematically assigns the worst teachers and most run-down facilities in the country to the poor children who need great schools the most.

Inconsistent Standards and Inadequate Data: Local control assures that we have no overall way to know how children are doing. By leaving the definition of standards and proficiency requirements to the states, No Child Left Behind—like earlier efforts in the educational standards movement—makes it impossible for us to know where kids stand. Instead it has produced a well-documented “race to the bottom” in which many states lower the achievement bar to foster the illusion of progress.

No Research and Development: Local control has prevented education from attracting the research and development that accelerates progress in almost every other human endeavor because the benefits from scale that drive such activities elsewhere are absent.

Union Dominance: Local control, particularly in big cities, often leaves schools in the hands of political school boards who are themselves under the thumb of powerful teachers’ unions that dominate their elections and block sensible reforms. As a result of these and related failings, most schools, far from relishing the supposed freedom granted by local control, feel trapped in red tape; principals say they spend their days on unproductive paperwork to comply with endless mandates, when they’re not busy navigating byzantine district bureaucracies to keep the heat on and the supply room stocked. The only way to demand more from schools while freeing educators and parents to find diverse ways for schools to perform better is to take a cue from other advanced countries and nationalize the system a little, especially when it comes to the standards we expect students to meet and the resources we allocate to help them do so. Specifically, we should:

Establish National Standards: The usual explanation for why national standards won’t fly politically in the United States is that the right hates “national” and the left hates “standards.” But that’s changing. Leading figures in both parties now say that in today’s “flat” world we can’t have the rigor of a child’s education, and thus chances for success, depend on the accident of where they happen to be born. Polls show a majority of Americans agree. Most proponents suggest we establish national standards and tests in grades three through 12 in core subjects—reading, math, and science, for starters—perhaps leaving more controversial subjects, such as history, until we get our feet wet with a new regime.

Increase the Federal Role in School Finance: Nowhere is it written in the Constitution that the federal government must contribute only 9 percent of K-12 spending, and if we’re serious about fixing today’s resource gaps, that must change. Raising the federal role to 25 to 30 percent of national K-12 spending could help bring all states up to a certain guaranteed baseline of funding per pupil. The federal government could also fund conditional grants to states enabling new “grand bargains” that boost school performance. For example, federal cash could be offered to lift teacher salaries substantially for high-poverty schools, provided that states or districts (1) allow big pay differentials for high-performing teachers or those in shortage specialties like math and science; and (2) defer or eliminate tenure, or condition it on proven student achievement gains.

Boost Research and Development: The federal government should use a portion of its higher investment to pursue an R&D agenda equal to the education sector’s needs. Today the feds spend $28 billion on research yearly at the National Institutes of Health, but only $260 million—1 percent of that—on R&D for schooling. Raising R&D to at least $4 billion could promote innovation in teaching and learning techniques that benefit all children.

In the effort to reform our education system, it is vital that one seeming paradox is understood: It is only by transcending traditional local control, and by getting serious about a new national role in standards and finance, that we can at last create genuine autonomy for local schools. This autonomy should become the new definition of what we mean when we say “local control.” We need to give schools one clear, national set of expectations, free educators and parents to collaborate locally in whatever ways work to get results, and get everything else out of the way.

Nationalizing our schools a little is antithetical to every cultural tradition in the United States save the one that matters most: our capacity to renew ourselves to meet the challenges of a new day.

Once upon a time, a national role in retirement security was anathema. Then suddenly, after the Depression, there was Social Security. Once a federal role in health care would have been damned as socialism, yet federal spending now accounts for one of every two dollars devoted to health care in the United States, with more money certain to come in the years ahead. When it comes to schools, there has likewise always been a tension between the desire to improve the life chances of more children by involving higher levels of authority, and the primordial American distrust of central government. But the truth is we started down this road even on schooling a long time ago. It’s time now to finish the job.

Read the full report (pdf)

To speak with our experts on this topic, please contact:

Print: Allison Preiss (economy, education, poverty)
202.478.6331 or apreiss@americanprogress.org

Print: Tom Caiazza (foreign policy, health care, energy and environment, LGBT issues, gun-violence prevention)
202.481.7141 or tcaiazza@americanprogress.org

Print: Chelsea Kiene (women's issues, Legal Progress, Half in Ten Education Fund)
202.478.5328 or ckiene@americanprogress.org

Spanish-language and ethnic media: Tanya Arditi
202.741.6258 or tarditi@americanprogress.org

TV: Rachel Rosen
202.483.2675 or rrosen@americanprogress.org

Radio: Chelsea Kiene
202.478.5328 or ckiene@americanprogress.org