Saturday, June 14, 2014

Local schools

Pundits often claim that the strength of US public education lies in "local control", meaning locally-elected school boards, with members reflecting their communities, which are locally-funded through locally-set levies and taxes. This is a myth. The only truly local schools are independent schools.

Public schools fall into two groups - public district and public charter. Public district schools may have a locally-elected board, however they are answerable to the city, county, state and federal government through legislative mandates and controls. They are answerable to union "locals" which in turn answer to regional, state and federal union leadership. A neighborhood public district school is hardly local. The principal and staff implement policies and procedures set elsewhere, very often thousands of miles away. Witness the need for advocates and pressure groups to travel when protesting an unpopular directive.

Public charter schools differ only in that district and county control is often missing, although some public charters may be run by districts. And again,they may not be answerable to teacher unions. Public charter schools are still at the whim and mercy of state and federal policies and procedures, set elsewhere, very often thousands of miles away.

Another frequently-overlooked form of distant control lies in the textbooks and instructional programs used by public district and public charter schools. Most (all?) textbooks in the US are written to satisfy the demands of the textbook adoption committees of California and Texas, as evidenced by a recent spat over a view of history reflecting Texan local politics.

Non-public schools likewise fall into two groups - private and independent. The difference has been explained elsewhere, but in essence private schools may be part of a group, or be part of a chain or be for profit. The most common private schools are probably Catholic; typically they belong to a diocese and are at the end of a long chain stretching back to the Vatican. Again, the principal and staff implement policies and procedures set elsewhere, very often thousands of miles away.

Independent schools are unique, single, stand-alone. They are independent. They reflect their community in that, as attendance is elective and voluntary, they must provide families with what they want. A school based around the sea and search and rescue would not be right for in the inland desert; a school based around equestrianism might struggle in New York. An emphasis on fine and performance arts works in one area; one on outdoor and experiential learning another.

Independent schools do belong to associations and organizations with criteria for membership, universally defined in terms of quality and ideals of fairness and decency. Membership is however voluntary and such organizations are "bottoms up" in how they run. An independent school has its own dedicated board of trustees, selected from the community, which sets strategic policies and procedures and which employs an administrative staff to set academic policies and procedures. Its geographic niche is local. Its demographic niche is also local. It answers to and reflects its local community.

So the next time a claim is made about the benefits of "local control" over schools, remember that only independent schools are truly local..

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