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One of our abiding American myths is that local control is better. The closer a decision is to the “people” rather than the “faceless bureaucrats” the better. Of course this is not the way most decisions are actually made in our political system. Most important policy is made at the state and national levels. But myths are by definition not true. They serve other purposes and all that is required is for people to think they are true.
Is there any rational basis for local decisions being better? Are local people better informed? Are they experts on important topics? Have they read the latest research? Do they have more experience? Or is all this just political rhetoric? The debate over the proper division of power between local, state, and federal control is as old as the nation. Controversies over the proper roles of each still animate our politics.
Conservatives tend to supported states rights and more local control, at least in theory. Liberals generally have used national legislation to advance their policy objectives. Many politicians want it both ways. Whenever it is convenient to rail against big government they tout local control and the value of government being closer to the people. But actually giving people control is usually not the case. Frequently legislatures scuttle efforts to actually exercise local control. Republicans in Wisconsin have imposed restrictions on local communities raising revenue for education. They have used state “preemption” laws to prevent local governments from setting city minimum wages or passing sick leave ordinances. They have limited local regulation of frack sand mining, large industrial farming, and high capacity water use.
Obviously, an appropriate sharing of local, state, and national control would be best. What we need is rational policy that promotes the best interests of most people. When the appropriate level of government fails to act responsibly, than the people have to appeal to other levels of government. We should remember that slavery and opposition to civil rights for blacks was based on “state’s rights.” Few people today would suggest we let local politicians decide if minorities can buy houses, vote, or have equal opportunity.
Many issues can not be solved with purely local or state decisions. Many issues cross political and geographic boundaries. Often problems are international in scope. Issues may be very technical or require large resources not available at the local level. It is ludicrous to think local decisions can control multinational businesses with resources larger than some countries. It is ludicrous to think environmental problems can be solved by local decisions. Local decisions can have an impact. You are either part of the solution or part of the problem. But no amount of local control will save a river, an ocean, or reverse climate change without a broader effort from outside the local area. No one suggests we fight communicable diseases with local, isolated efforts. There is a role to play for local, state and federal levels of government.
We should remember that most government regulation (that is control) has come about because of a NEED. Laws and regulations are solutions to problems. No one sits around in Washington arbitrarily thinking up restrictions on citizens or business. There would have been no need for federal civil rights standards had local people been more tolerant. The existence of local Jim crow laws made national regulations necessary. Fire and building codes evolved because cities burned and buildings collapsed. Environmental regulations came about because the water wasn’t fit to drink and children were getting cancer.
The myth of local control is perpetuated most often in K-12 education. Secretary of Education Betsy De Vos recently said, “We have to do something different than continuing a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach. States and local communities are best equipped to make decisions on behalf of their students.” Ironically Ms. De Vos is pushing a national agenda to privatize our public schools with voucher programs and charter schools.
But education is not, for the most part, controlled from the “top down.” Until the passage of No Child Left Behind in the Bush II administration, most school policy was set by the states. There were some exceptions regarding racial and gender equality because state and local policy was discriminatory and national standards were needed. States and local communities provide most school funding. The Federal government provides very little funding for the average school district. The funding they do provide for special needs students, school lunch programs, and high poverty areas mitigates the problems created by funding schools with local property taxes.
Regarding “one size fits all,” it should be obvious that the elements of a good education can no longer be locally determined. The educational needs of students are the same everywhere. Students need very similar skills and knowledge to be successful in an increasing homogeneous world. In a modern, highly technological, global economy it makes no sense for local school boards to be setting curriculum. The anti-tax, excessively sports dominated, frequently anti-science, and too often religious leaning attitudes of local school boards does not serve students well.
Local school boards are largely an anachronism. Like the nine month school year based on a former agricultural economy, the real world has moved on. In reality local boards have very little authority. All the important decisions about curriculum, standards, and policy are set by the state. A statewide school board would make more sense. A single statewide administrative structure would save money and provide better education. All teachers should be state employees with a statewide salary and benefit schedule. This would ensure an equal teacher quality statewide. All schools should get the same funding, have similar facilities, offer the same courses. A student should get the same education in small towns, inner cities, and rural areas as in the wealthy suburban communities.
Effective government at all levels is essential for everyone. What works and best meets the needs of the public should determine the level of control. We should not be guided by antiquated myths or political sound bites.