Thursday, March 18, 2004

Not losing sleep on local control 

One of the discussions we hear on NCLB and the social science standards (common to both the left and the right) is the loss of local control. Keith Broady, a school board member in suburban Minneapolis, wrings his hands in the local paper today:
If we are serious about closing the achievement gap between white students and students of color, there has to be more local control and flexibility for individual school districts to meet the needs of local communities.

Instead, we are moving even further from the concept of local control.

We were disappointed to see the Star Tribune endorse further statewide mandates in the March 4 editorial "Kids' fitness / State should require PE in school." We are not saying that physical education isn't important for students, but rather that the state and now federal governments have become overly prescriptive in mandating what school districts must do and how they must do it.

Another example is the proposed social studies standards. If these standards are adopted, we will essentially have a statewide curriculum in social studies that leaves no flexibility for local school boards and teachers. A state-imposed curriculum will not allow school boards to respond to local needs and will not allow teachers to exercise their creativity and professional judgment to increase student achievement.

The extensive federal and state mandates have started to conflict with each other. The federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation requires districts to focus resources on closing the achievement gap in reading, math and science. Now the state is considering requiring physical education, world language and a statewide social studies curriculum.
Local control sounds wonderful; it sounds conservative, reminiscent of New England town meetings, and grassrootsy. But it's not necessarily the right view. William Niskanen, in Bureuacracies and Representative Government (I think it's out of print now), and George Stigler's famous study of the ICC (Rand Journal, 1971) long ago showed how bureaucracies can be captured by those they hire to provide services, when the service providers can control information to protect themselves and their inefficiencies. Niskanen argued separately that if you wanted to prevent this, you needed to separate the policy-making bureaucracy from the production-supervising bureaucracy. The argument for local control of education works to combine those. That combination leads to too high a local property tax to fund education and/or a decrease in the quantity of education provided.

Voters over time may understand this and as a result seek separation of the policy-making bureaucracy to either the state or the federal government. It's not necessarily contrary to conservatism to do so; if we let local militia leaders decide how much national defense we'll have, is there any reason to believe we'd get the right amount?

It also strikes me as disingenuous: the same people caterwauling against NCLB or the standards are remarkably silent on Title IX or the Profiles of Learning.

Gordon Tullock, in his Politics of Bureaucracy, quotes Czar Nicholas I: "I do not rule Russia. Ten thousand clerks do." Who rules your schools, if you decide to contract out for the education of your own child?