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What Level of Government Should Control Education?

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The fight over education in America has many subplots. One is the power struggle between school districts, the states and the Federal government. While schools are eager to accept money from any level of government, they are typically not too eager to listen to the directives that come along with those dollars. Meanwhile, the various levels of government are interested in taxing and redistributing the people’s money if they are able to increase their power and control (dictating which special interests get the money, how that money is spent and what gets taught in schools).

The people who argue for centralized government control often rely on claims of a need for economies of scale or the need to minimize the damage done by those at the local level. They argue that the ability of people in state capitals or Washington, D.C. to shift billions of dollars at a time gives them the ability to rein in costs and make expensive investments in innovation feasible. They say that uniform state/national standards are critical to knowing how children are doing so that they can adjust education to meet the needs of the people. And, they suggest that the wise people in the capitals need to make the education decisions because the people at the local level are incompetent and incapable of making the proper decisions regarding the education of children.

The people who argue for more localized control of education tend to focus on the responsiveness and accountability that politicians and schools boards have to their constituents at the local level. They suggest that local politicians and state employees are better able to understand the needs of people and adjust accordingly. That they are less likely to sell out the interests of the people for the benefit of special interest groups. They say that a one-size fits all approach to education does not work, that Justice Louis Brandeis was right when he said “It is one of the happy incidents of the federal system that a single courageous State may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.”

Both have rhetoric which seems to ring true, and a failed education system laden with plenty of anecdotal examples which supports their rhetoric. For example, seven school districts in Georgia sued to stop charters established by the state, locking out competition in order to protect their incumbent schools. Advocates of central control would say that this highlights the challenges to progress posed by a localized control over education. Or, on the other hand, we can look at the incredible burdens and costs related to the Bush Administration’s No Child Left Behind. The program which was supposed to trim bureaucracy and promote school choice ended up increasing spending by 41 percent, expanded federal authority, and created 7 million hours per year worth of new regulations and paperwork. Advocates of localization rightly point out how wasteful and inefficient big government can be.

There is truth behind both the localism and the central control arguments. Both rightly recognize the failings of government intervention and control at certain levels of government. What they don’t recognize (or admit) is that government intervention and control fails at all levels, local, state and federal. Yes, it is better for a local community to make decisions on the education of their children then far off politicians and bureaucrats, but even at the local level the focus on the education and welfare of the child is lost. Most homeschool parents, however, get it. They realize that each child has their own unique learning style which is best developed by a tailored, individualized education that is not available through government. They believe that the interests of the child and the family trump that of teachers unions, school administrators, curriculum providers and politicians. These parents don’t argue that education should be controlled locally, or by the federal government, they realize that education should be controlled by them, the parents.

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