What is ‘local control’ in public education really about?

How would an authentically child-centered view of public education define “local control,” in regard to actually running a public school? Does it mean state-level control, district-level control, or school-level control? According to a new study, shifting power from the state and districts to schools is where a child-centered philosophy of education should be headed.

The study, published by the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education (a part of the Teachers College at Columbia University), found that students in “charter schools with higher autonomy from the district in terms of financial budget, academic program, and hiring decisions” read at a grade level higher than similar traditional public school students after three years. Interestingly, this was not the case when traditional public schools were compared to charter schools generally, confirming the common-sense conclusion that good charter schools can only exist with good charter school policy, which gives them real freedom from district authority.

This study raises the question of whether similar improvements in education might occur generally if all public schools – both traditional and charter – had real autonomy from school districts and the state over budgets, academics, and/or hiring decisions. Legislation intended to bring about just this kind of authentic local control in public education budgeting was introduced in the recently concluded legislative session. But based on comments made during public debate on the bill, it was opposed by a significant number of public education administrators.

So why do those charged with administering public schools in Utah favor maintaining the status quo, rather than pursuing policy reforms that hold the potential to improve education for children? Is their philosophy of public education really centered on children first and foremost, or are they too involved in the current power structure to truly focus on a “child-centered perspective”?

Certainly, this one piece of legislation provides no definitive answer, but it does point in a clear direction.

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