By Chester Finn & Michael Petrilli
Despite America’s romantic attachment to “local control of public education,” the reality is that the way it works today offers a worst-of-both-worlds scenario. On the one hand, district-level power constrains individual schools; its standardizing, bureaucratic, and political force ties the hands of principals, stopping them from doing what’s best for their pupils with regard to budget, staffing, and curriculum. On the other, local control isn’t strong enough to clear the obstacles that state and federal governments place before reform-minded board members and superintendents in the relatively few locales where these can even be observed.
Sure, remarkable individuals can sometimes make it work, at least for a while: Michelle Rhee (backed by Adrian Fenty) in the District of Columbia; Joel Klein (backed by Michael Bloomberg) in New York City; Arne Duncan (backed by Richard Daley) in Chicago; Jerry Weast (abetted by a rising budget) in Montgomery County, Maryland. Readers can surely cite additional examples. But these are the exceptions that prove the rule.
The rule is that education-policy decisions are made in so many places—each with some capacity to initiate change but with even greater capacity to block it—that there’s really nobody “in charge.” Some will say that’s a tribute to our traditions of democratic control, checks and balances, pluralism, and federalism. Others will say it’s just a mighty wasteful and ineffectual way to run a system that is widely believed to need a thorough makeover.