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NATIONALIZE THE SCHOOLS (…A LITTLE)!: Report Calls for National Standards, Increased Federal Role in Education

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"It is vital that one seeming paradox is understood: It is only by transcending traditional local control, and by getting serious about a new national role in standards and finance, that we can at last create genuine autonomy for local schools. This autonomy should become the new definition of what we mean when we say ‘local control.'"

The nation’s current structure of local control is negatively impacting the country’s educational system, according to Nationalize the Schools (… a Little)!, a new report from the Center for American Progress (CAP). The report calls for national standards, an increased federal role, and a lesser role for local school boards and teacher unions.

“In the effort to reform our education system,” writes Matt Miller, a senior fellow at CAP and the author of the report, “it is vital that one seeming paradox is understood: It is only by transcending traditional local control, and by getting serious about a new national role in standards and finance, that we can at last create genuine autonomy for local schools. This autonomy should become the new definition of what we mean when we say ‘local control.'”

Couching his theories in a retrospective look at the work of Horace Mann and the development of local control of education in the country, Miller says that the need for an increased federal role has been argued for decades. He suggests there are several fundamental flaws in the current scheme. For one, local control leads to financial disparities within and among states that is often not discussed at the federal level. As an example, Miller writes that the difference in spending between wealthy and poor school districts in the United States can range from $5,000 to $10,000 per pupil, compared to Sweden and the Netherlands, where all students receive the same funding or more money is allocated for poor students.

In addition, the report surmises that local control has led to inconsistent standards and inadequate data and has made it difficult to develop necessary research and development. It says that the No Child Left Behind Act “makes it impossible for us to know where kids stand” and has produced a “well-documented ‘race to the bottom’ in which many states lower the achievement bar to foster the illusion of progress.” The report adds that the nation’s 15,000 individual school districts make it impossible for vendors to work with the school system as a whole.

The report also highlights the power of unions which, according to Miller, influence local contracts and state policy, impede the work of superintendents and educational reform efforts, and affect local school board elections. Finally, he notes that few people vote in school board elections, and that once members are installed, they spend time on minor matters rather than systemic issues.

As an alternative to the current system, the report proposes a move toward national standards in three core subjects: reading, math, and science. It acknowledges that the development of common standards has historically been a contentious topic but points to a recent change in public opinion that is more in favor of the idea. It also calls for the federal government to increase its role in funding education by up to 30 percent, which would boost funding by approximately $30 billion dollars a year. The additional money would help to bring all states up to a certain guaranteed baseline of funding per pupil and would be conditioned on boosting student performance.

Miller also calls for a greater investment in education research and development. He notes an argument by Chris Whittle, the founder of Edison Schools, that the federal government spends $28 billion on basic research yearly at the National Institutes of Health, but only $260 million-1 percent of that total-on research and development for education.

Given rapid globalization of the workforce and the need to prepare students to thrive in a “flat world,” Miller calls for more foreign language and cultural studies within the education curriculum. He proposes requiring fluency in a second language for high school graduation, as well as courses that expose students to a breadth of cultures and religions.

As a final suggestion, the report calls for the elimination of school boards. “The best course would be to scrap them, especially in the big cities where most poor children are educated,” it reads. However, it also notes that the 95,000 individuals who make up the nation’s school board membership are an active lobbying force that would make this option difficult. Therefore, the report suggests changing their role so they do less damage.

In an event on hosted by the Center for American Progress on March 4, Reginald M. Felton, director of federal relations for the National School Boards Association (NSBA), and Roy Romer, chairman of Strong American Schools and former governor of Colorado, responded to the report. Felton argued that standards and schools boards were not mutually exclusive. He said school boards are important because they are part of the core values of a democratic society and that their challenges are often due to states not assuming their full responsibilities. He also stated that NSBA would not support national standards without the requisite investment from the federal government. For his part, Romer professed his support for common standards developed by the states but added that he did not feel they needed to be mandated by the federal government.

The report is available at http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/2008/03/pdf/nationalize_the_schools.pdf.

Video of the event featuring Miller, Felton, and Romer is available at http://www.americanprogress.org/events/2008/03/natschools.html.

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