Local Control of Public Schools is a Thing in 2016

Maybe it’s in the air (or snow), but local control of public schools seems a hot-button issue for 2016. It’s not just a matter of a potential ballot initiative for an elected school board in DC, either: people of all political stripes have been energized by a movement to amend Virginia’s constitution to bypass local school boards and have that state’s education department approve charter schools.

Look at what just two have said:

“What I’m afraid of is that the state is going to say OK we want a performing arts charter school in Fairfax. And the state’s either going to say we’re only going to pay one third of it or Fairfax, you have to pay it all.” Dave Albo (R), member, Virginia House of Delegates, as quoted by WAMU

“It really takes away control from local school boards and gives it to the bureaucrats in Richmond. We are in the best position to determine what the local needs are.” Newport News School Board member Shelly Simonds (D), as quoted by the Hampton Roads Daily Press

Then there is the little issue of the lawsuit alleging abysmal conditions in Detroit public schools (mold, broken windows, dangerous leaks). Among other things, the lawsuit calls for local control of Detroit public schools to be returned, citing state emergency management of the city’s schools as directly responsible for the horrible conditions the lawsuit documents.

Funny how those who advocate for school choice seem to be kinda silent on the issue of local control:

“Because the issue of private influence on public decision making has been raised, it is important to point out that all our work operates within a system of checks and balances, ensuring ultimate public accountability for education. CityBridge may fund a charter school, but the independent authorizer must approve that charter and parents then have the option of choosing whether children attend that school or not.” Katherine Bradley, as quoted by the Washington City Paper

Ah, the benevolent hand of school choice claps again! If parents do not like a school or feel there is not enough accountability, happily, there is always another school to choose! (Well, except in Detroit, where a frightening number of schools seem to be crumbling and thus are not exactly choice-worthy. Can’t imagine that happening here in DC–oh, wait a second.)

In this, school choice cannot be separated from people-driven accountability. That is, accountability driven by the folks who actually pay the public school bills (hint: that’s us unwashed masses of DC taxpayers).

Of course, there are those like Ms. Bradley who think school choice IS accountability: you do not like a school, you walk away and choose another (well, actually get lucky with a lottery slot at, but let’s not split hairs).

But that’s getting it backwards: school choice entirely depends on accountability, not the other way around.

Think about it for a second: if there is a lack of accountability for something that is a necessary part of a democracy, like water or public schools, what choice do you really have? (The people in Flint, Michigan, for instance, know all about this with their ongoing lead in water situation. Can’t imagine that happening in DC–oh, wait a second.)

Such lack of accountability becomes particularly galling with public schools, where the public–not well-heeled private foundations or individuals or politicians, however well-meaning or groomed–not only funds the vast majority of public schools (and every last thing in them) but is also the primary user and beneficiary of traditional public schools’ critical civic function.

Here in DC, accountability for public schools theoretically rests with the mayor, who is (theoretically) in charge of all public schools.

But reality tosses that theory pretty fast here. Despite the mayor appointing members of the DC public charter school board (PCSB), that board exercises oversight quite independent of anyone locally (well, except for the council approving mayoral appointees) and almost after the fact, by way of school closures, which are pretty expensive on a variety of levels.

Moreover, unlike with DCPS, which is directly accountable to both mayor and her deputy mayor for education, the deputy mayor for education doesn’t exercise any control over PCSB or its decisions (nor even the charter sector’s participation in the cross-sector task force, which has yet to meet since its first meeting, on January 26, was cancelled and has not been rescheduled).

But the way our school choice is framed–with a lottery that, although never audited, appears blind, with most schools participating, except those that choose not to–seems to make sense in a free market way. Well, except for accountability and control asymmetry.

So it is that the vaunted benefits of school choice here are upended by a distinct lack of local control and information. Sure, parents can FOIA the charter board or DCPS about anything.

But when our public schools are operated by entities that are less than transparent, and local regulations are crafted to ensure that opacity continues, how is a parent to make a truly informed choice?

Look for more about local control for schools in 2016–it’s a thing.

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