the growing distance between people and schools

(Washington, DC) Liberals are often dismissive of local control in education. For example, in the current New York Review of Books, Christopher Benfey remarks on Mitt “Romney’s obligatory kowtowing to local and parental control of school systems (meaning, presumably, more school prayer and less evolution) …”*

Local control may mean more prayer and less evolution–in some districts–but it may also increase people’s stake in public education.

In 1940, each school district in the United States served only 1,117 people, and usually the district had an elected board. Today the average school board serves almost 20 times as many residents, and often it has an appointed leader. Meanwhile, the number of residents served by each school has grown tenfold since 1900. While these trends have unfolded–as the deliberate result of consolidation, undertaken in the name of efficiency–standardized testing has become more important, and state and federal mandates have proliferated. As a result, fewer people are involved in local school governance, which has become less consequential.

To be sure, districts can be too small for efficiency. And many of the important state–and especially federal–mandates have been enacted to protect vulnerable minorities and have had positive effects.

However, if it is true that people want accountability that is relational rather than informational, then Americans are going to perceive schools as less accountable the bigger the districts get. And they are not likely to fund or otherwise trust schools that they consider unaccountable.

This would be not be an essential problem if people generally trusted government and were involved in public life in other ways, such as on juries. But the trends of distrust and disengagement are evident across the government.

*In the same issue of the NYRB, Michael Greenberg interviews an Occupy Wall Street participant who extolls “direct democracy,” saying, “as you can see for yourself [it] works beautifully here on the whole.” Greenberg “mention[s] Proposition 8 in California, an instance of direct democracy that overturned a state supreme court ruling that had legalized same sex marriage.” Apparently, local control implies creationism, and direct democracy means overturning gay marriage. So much for democratic vistas.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.