Matt Miller has a piece in this month’s Atlantic (sorry, subscription required), decrying the abysmal state of education in America. I am certainly with him as far as this goes. He cites numerous statistics that give America at best a middling place in the world hierarchy, and at worst, given our outlandish expenditures on public schools, the dubious distinction of international dunces.
Unfortunately, our agreement ends at the description of the facts of the tragedy, because Miller immediately proceeds to place the blame of lagging performance on the dispersed local structure of our system. The solution for which he advocates is to replace local decisions with federal standards. His solution is tragically flawed and reflective of a mindset that greets government failure as an invitation to expand government.
There are a host of problems with Miller’s analysis and argument; I will focus on one: his contention that America’s declining performance is a consequence of too much local control.
Miller begins by lamenting that America is currently divided into 15,000 school districts which obstruct grand national schemes to rectify problems within the network as a whole. Strangely, he immediately undercuts his argument that decentralization produces stagnation and decline by subsequently noting that at one time in our nation’s past there were over 150,000 school districts. While we have not seen anything like a 10-fold decrease in educational attainment relative to our past, neither have our schools improved by that measure. If anything, the correlation between district number and student achievement would seem to suggest a causative pattern running directly counter to that put forward by Miller. By the same token, the period of the last thirty years which most regard as showing the most precipitous drop-off in American education also coincides with an unprecedented expansion of the federal government into American classrooms. Miller argues that No Child Left Behind doesn’t give central authorities enough power to set standards, but is he really going to suggest that it hasn’t enlarged federal control at all? It’s strange too for him to lament that local school boards are presently over-matched by teacher’s unions with a large national presence. How does he think this dynamic will change when the teacher’s unions no longer have to deal with 15,000 individual boards and can instead focus all their lobbying efforts on a single target in Washington? For my part, I see such a future as incredibly bleak from the standpoint of a parent or child trapped in the public system. What possible leverage could they exert against an established lobby claiming literally millions of members with like interests? So to sum up: no, local control is not the problem, and even if it were, the control is not as local as Miller imagines.
If what we really desire is an improvement in educational outcomes, then the solution is simple: return control of the money spent on education to those with the highest vested interest in seeing that is well spent, a.k.a. parents. Nothing holds service providers to a higher level of accountability than the forces of a free-market. If you want evidence of this in a specific educational context you need look no further than our own post-secondary collegiate system which is still to this day the envy of the world. I agree with Miller that school boards, even at an intensely local level, are problematic. He thinks they are too ill-informed and politically unaccountable to achieve satisfactory performance. I see the problem arising from the fact that dissident members of the community are forced to submit to and even subsidize a program that they oppose. So I agree, let’s kill all the school boards, but can we please not replace them with a School Magisterium.