Thursday, January 31, 2008

Local Control Destroying U.S. Schools?

Matt Miller has an interesting article over at the Atlantic on Education. He asserts that local control of the schools is the causal element of the inferiority of public education in the US. The problem with this assertion is that he concedes until the 1960s that US schools were quite good in comparison to other OECD countries. He briefly touches on some shifts in American society that occurred would make local control detrimental such as funding issues; prior to WWII suburban commutter communities were less prevalent, thus property taxes were a force of equity instead of inequity in education. However, he concedes that this is mitigated in large part by the increasing share of state funding of schools (about 50%). Ironically he then complains that the grossest violator in fueling funding inequities is Title I funding (i.e. federal) which is apportioned not on a strict per capita basis but rather on how much was spent previously by the state (this same perversion occurs with Medicaid).

He then goes on to confuse correlation with causation by asserting that America is unique amongst OECD countries in that local control features so prominently in the U.S. where it is mostly absent in other countries and thus determines that local control is the causal factor for American educational ineptitude. Yet again, looking at correlations and ascribing causality to them I could do the same and make the opposite point. Iowa has one of the best school systems in the country both on the basis of performance and cost-effectiveness and it has one of the most decentralized systems in the country. Ergo, the consolidation of school districts over the last 50 years is the primary cause of the decline in American public education.

Miller does touch on the folly of our attempts at national standards, i.e. by making them voluntary or optional and thus not national. And he highlights the basic problem with NCLB in so far as it lets states set their own standards, thus you are not really able to make an apples to apples comparison of state achievement. It was also interesting to see him make the argument that school boards are effectively captured by teachers unions given that he works for the Center of the American Progress which is the nation's flagship liberal/progressive think tank. I found his arguments to be severely lacking which is a shame because it was a bold thesis and would have been interesting to see if he could marshal some evidence to support it.

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