In education, local control refers to (1) the governing and management of public schools by elected or appointed representatives serving on governing bodies, such as school boards or school committees, that are located in the communities served by the schools, and (2) the degree to which local leaders, institutions, and governing bodies can make independent or autonomous decisions about the governance and operation of public schools. For a related discussion, see autonomy.
The concept of local control is grounded in a philosophy of government premised on the belief that the individuals and institutions closest to the students and most knowledgeable about a school—and most invested in the welfare and success of its educators, students, and communities—are best suited to making important decisions about its operation, leadership, staffing, academics, teaching, and improvement. This general philosophy of governance is often contrasted with state or federal policies intended to influence the structure, operation, or academic programs in public schools, given that level of control granted to local governing bodies is directly related to the level of prescription articulated in education laws, regulations, and related compliance rules and requirements.
While the United States Constitution does not explicitly mention education, the Tenth Amendment states that “the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people,” which has been widely interpreted as delegating primary authority and control over the regulation, governance, and operation of public schools to states (that said, many federal laws and regulations heavily influence the operation of public schools both directly and indirectly—see discussion below). The role that state governments and agencies play in school governance and management varies from state to state, with some states exerting more direct control over public schools and other states allowing local governing bodies to adopt policies and perform governance functions for the schools in their district or municipality. States that assign more responsibility over the governance and management of public schools to local governing bodies are often called “local-control states.” Historically, these states have generally deferred to local school boards and committees on governance issues, including many issues related to compliance with state statutes and regulations.
While local control takes a variety of forms from place to place—far too many to extensively catalog here—the following illustrative examples will serve to describe a few common forms of local control in the United States:
- Regional school boards: Regional school boards and committees typically oversee the governance and operation of a school district that serves a variety of communities in a defined area. Membership is composed of locally elected representatives who sit on the board for a defined term of office, and membership is often apportioned in accordance with the population of the participating communities. Responsibilities can vary significantly from place to place, but common functions include the hiring and firing of superintendents, the development of school budgets, and the adoption of district policies. Some districts, it should be noted, may have multiple schools boards. For example, a district may have separate boards overseeing its elementary schools and its secondary schools, or a regional career and technical education center that serves students from one or more districts may have its own governing board.
- Municipal school boards: Similar in structure and function to regional school boards, municipal school boards and committees oversee the governance and operations of public schools located in single town or city (given that larger cities have sizeable student populations, they are often defined as standalone school districts). In municipal school districts, governance responsibilities may be shared with other municipal bodies. For example, a school board may need to secure approval of its annual district budget from the city council, town council, or board of selectpersons.
- Regional school unions: A regional school union is a confederation of multiple school boards representing specific towns and municipalities. Unlike a regional school board that is composed of elected representatives from the municipalities in a given district, school unions retain a distinct school board for each community. While responsibilities for governance and operations vary from place to place, school unions typically make collective decisions related to certain governance functions and independent decisions related to others. For example, schools unions may collectively hire the superintendent and district staff, approve an annual district budget, or set policy for a regional high school that serves students from all the participating communities, while also retaining individual autonomy and governance authority for the elementary and middle schools located in each participating town.
- School-based governance: Local control also manifests in the form of school-based governance, which can take a wide variety of forms from school to school. For example, charter schools—privately operated schools funded partially or entirely by public money, often in the form of student tuition paid by states and communities—typically have their own distinct governance structure and board of directors. While charter schools are subject to state regulation, they may not need to comply with the policies governing public schools in the districts they are located in.
Local control can become the object of reform in a wide variety of ways. The following representative examples will serve to illustrate a few of the primary ways that local control may become targeted for reform:
- Federal and state policies: Legislative bodies and governmental agencies at the federal and state levels may adopt new laws, regulations, and related compliance rules and requirements that influence the degree of control local bodies have over the governance and operation of public schools. While these policies are too numerous and complex to address here, federal and state policies can affect local control both directly and indirectly. For example, state governments may directly influence local control by taking steps to reduce the number of districts and school boards in a state, or they may adopt statewide graduation requirements for public-school students that directly affect the degree of control that school boards have to determine local graduation requirements for students. Other policies, such as high-stakes tests, have a more indirect influence on local control. In this case, schools may specifically prepare students to take a standardized test by teaching them the knowledge, skills, and test-taking strategies likely to increase their performance on a test (a phenomenon informally known as “teaching to the test”). While the schools are not required to teach the material that will be tested, the prospect of low scores and related consequences may nevertheless influence both how and what schools decide to teach.
- Regionalization and consolidation: The consolidation of school districts and school boards is another common form of local-control reform. In many cases, elected officials, legislators, and policy makers attempt to consolidate or regionalize the governance of public schools in an effort to cut educational costs by reducing administrative staffing, closing offices or schools, and consolidating district operations such as accounting, transportation, maintenance, and purchasing. While lowering costs through the elimination of operational redundancies is the perhaps the most common rationale for consolidation, many other factors may influence the decision to regionalize school governance and operations, including the opportunity to improve, expand, or diversify school programming for students. In rural areas, for example, smaller schools, particularly high schools, with smaller budgets and student populations are financially unable to provide many of the programs, services, and learning opportunities available to students in larger schools, including a diversity of arts, world-language, athletics, and co-curricular programs. Consolidating with other towns and sending their students to a larger regional high school is one way that communities can offer their students a greater variety of educational programs and opportunities.
- Assertion or reinstatement of local control: Local control may also be asserted by local governing bodies or reinstated after an unsuccessful attempt to consolidate districts, school boards, and public schools. In some states, efforts to consolidate school governance have been attempted, but have subsequently failed for any number of complex reasons, leading to the reinstatement of former district or school-board governance structures. In recent years, local actors have also attempted to assert greater control over public schools. One particularly high-profile example are so-called “parent trigger laws” that allow parents to intervene when the school their children attend is deemed “low performing” by the state. Although laws differ from state to state, they usually allow parent groups to create petitions that, with enough signatures, can “trigger” a variety of actions, such as converting a public school into a charter school, firing and replacing the school’s administration and faculty, or closing the school and sending its students to alternate schools. In addition, the proliferation and growing popularity of charter schools represents another way that local control is asserted, given that charter schools, though they are regulated by states, are often locally governed and managed (exceptions include virtual charter schools operated by out-of-state organizations and large corporations, and charter-school franchises that may be centrally managed from outside of the community in which a particular school is located).
Numerous historical, cultural, political, and legal factors can influence the structure and execution of local school governance, and the issue of local control can be extremely complicated, emotionally charged, and contentious in some communities, states, and regions. New England, for example, has a long history of local control over public schools that dates back to the colonial era, and local control is often a source of debate and conflict in the northeast, while state-directed control of public schools is less controversial or contentious in many southern states that do not have the same history of local control.
Local control also intersects with the legal concept of “state’s rights,” and feelings of skepticism or hostility directed at the federal government and federally administered programs. In recent years, local control of public schools has become a source of tensions and conflicts that are part of broader political and ideological schisms and debates in American society, such as disagreements related to role that state and federal governments should play in the lives of citizens.
While debates related to local control are both numerous and nuanced, the following examples are representative of a few major arguments for and against local control.
Reducing local control can:
- Lower educational costs and improve efficiency of districts and schools. By eliminating administrative positions, closing offices, and consolidating district operations, and by centralizing many administrative and operational functions such as accounting, transportation, maintenance, and purchasing, the overall cost of public schooling will go down, taxpayers in states and communities will save money, and public schools can be run more efficiently and effectively.
- Reduce bureaucracy. By eliminating and streamlining bureaucracy, school leaders will have more authority to make executive decisions related to academics, staffing, teaching, and school improvement.
- Improve, expand, or diversify school programming. In rural areas with smaller schools, student populations, and district operating budgets, public schools do not have the resources to provide many of the programs, services, and learning opportunities that are available to students in larger schools.
- Improve academic quality, educational consistency, and teaching effectiveness. Because new policies and requirements can enforce higher academic standards for students, and higher professional standards for administrators, teachers, and staff, reducing local control can improve school quality across a state or region.
Increasing local control can:
- Improve academic quality and teaching effectiveness in a school. Because the school is being governed and managed by the individuals and institutions that are the most knowledgeable about and invested in the school and its educators, students, and communities, and because no one is more invested in the welfare and success of children than parents, teachers, and community members, locally controlled schools are more likely to act in the best interest of students.
- Increase local pride, civic participation, and public and financial support for public schools. Because active participation in the governance process increase feelings of connectedness and ownership, locally controlled schools will benefit from greater community involvement and investment.
- Improve teaching and student performance. Because school leaders and teachers in smaller schools with smaller classes know the backgrounds, learning needs, and aspirations of their students better than educators in larger schools with larger numbers of students, consolidating districts and schools could potentially lead to lower-quality teaching and lower student performance.