Local Educational Control Versus Central Planning
Week of February 26, 2021 by Tom Deighan
As Oklahomans, not much scares us, not even the weather, but last week’s winter blast tested our Okie mettle. As bad as it was, however, it could have been much worse, without the local heroes who cleared the streets, kept the lights on, and kept the water flowing. During times of crisis, we instinctively know that those closest to the problem have the best solutions. Even if they do not get it 100% right, local people will almost always address the problem better. If the COVID pandemic hasn’t taught us that universal problems cannot always be addressed universally, last week’s bitter weather surely illustrated it. As much as state and federal officials wanted to help, no one expected someone from Washington DC or from 23rd and Lincoln to pull a school bus out of a snowbank last week. Proximity is a key factor when a tow rope is needed.
Local problems generally demand local solutions, but we are quickly losing that concept for Oklahoma’s diverse schools. Our founders wisely designated education as a state issue, and states have traditionally relied on parents and community members to run local schools through school boards. As such, “local control” has been historically preferred over central educational planning, but in recent decades, state and federal legislation have gradually stripped parents and communities of authority. Even with the best of intentions, widespread legislation designed to address uniquely local issues almost always unleashes unintended consequences.
Currently, the most influential educator in Oklahoma classrooms is Washington D.C. because in recent decades states like Oklahoma have been forced to gradually reduce local control of school boards, parents, and educators to meet federal mandates (and to qualify for federal funds). That is upside down, but our elected officials face tremendous pressure to “fix” local public schools, but universal solutions to local issues rarely work, whether in snowstorms or in classrooms. Over the past decade, “fixes” such as common core, A-F Report Cards, and Reading Sufficiency have been implemented but later repealed, replaced, or re-legislated. This is not a red or blue problem, for all of this occurred with widespread bi-partisan support at the state and federal levels, irrespective of political party. Maybe education really is purple after all, not just politically but also from the repeated bruising of ham-fisted solutions.
Local damage control is about all that’s left for communities stuck in snowbanks of state and federal reforms. Knee-jerk legislation often causes more problems than it fixes, perpetuating a cycle of dysfunctional inconsistency. This year, we graduate a group of children who have never had consistent testing, curriculum, or legislative agendas during their entire educational career. The chaos has trickled down from the feds, saturated the states, and flooded classrooms like pipes bursting after a thaw.
Unfortunately, a slate of current legislation seems to be continuing the pattern of central planning in response to local decisions that were made during an historically unprecedented pandemic. Let’s face it, no one got it 100% right; no district, no city and no state did this perfectly. We should therefore be very wary of any permanent legislative solutions to localized or temporary issues arising from the COVID age. Most school districts in Oklahoma apparently provided in-person learning all year, but I also understand why many districts chose other paths. These decisions were agonizing, whatever the choice, but those were local decisions that require local adjustments.
Even when the problems are universal, solutions rarely are. Everyone learned a lot during the pandemic, and no one would do it the same if we had a do-over, but let’s not worsen things by further eroding local control. Yes, we must all address the ramifications of local decisions, but schools are first accountable to the parents and school boards closest to the problem. This is true for snowstorms and school buses and pandemics, but especially true for school buses in snowstorms during a pandemic. Let us be very careful moving forward, Oklahoma, or we may never again regain local control over our schools, and that should truly scare us all.