Magazine | March 19, 2018, Issue

In Defense of Local Schools

(REUTERS\Brian Snyder)
Education reformers should acknowledge the school as community center.

When it comes to America’s schools, the pillars of conservative thought tend to be school choice and local control. There’s a quiet assumption that the two fit hand-in-glove. But it’s become clear that this might not always be the case.

And this matters — a lot. Schools account for the lion’s share of state and local spending and are woven into the fabric of the community. In 2018, a host of imperiled Republican governors and state legislators will need to work overtime to address the concerns of families who’ve felt overlooked by policymakers and distrust reforms associated with the mess in Washington.

“Local control” has historically meant that an elected board oversees all public schools in a community. Kids are assigned to a school in the local district based on where they live (or with limited choice among district schools). This system’s strengths are clear: It’s familiar, the community controls the system through the ballot box, kids go to school with neighbors, and — as a self-contained, time-tested unit of local government — it offers a bulwark against bossy dictates from distant authorities.

This has all made district schools quite popular, remarkably so given the drumbeat of advocates who routinely assert that America’s schools are “failing.” In the last decade, well more than half — and as high as 70 percent — of parents gave their local schools a grade of “A” or “B,” and, going back two decades, Gallup has found that generally three-quarters of parents are satisfied with their oldest child’s education.

At the same time, critics justifiably criticize the bureaucracy, rigid contracts, parochial politics, and lethargy that can characterize big urban districts. For a lot of parents, charter schools or voucher programs that make it possible to enroll a child in a better, safer school can be a godsend. A new poll by the American Federation for Children found that more than two-thirds of likely voters support the concept of school choice, defined as giving “parents the right to use the tax dollars designated for their child’s education” toward paying for a public or private school that “best serves their needs.”

Given its appeal, advocates have dismissed any potential conflict between choice and local control by blandly observing that parental choice is the “most local of local control.” As Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has put it, “the answer is local control. It’s listening to parents, and it’s giving more choices.” But this belies real tensions. After all, the local-district system is premised on tradition, continuity, and geography; choice on innovation, markets, and voluntary associations.

In most of public life, there is friction between the market and time-tested norms and institutions. Markets are disruptive precisely because they upend familiar routines.

In education, reformers routinely laud local government and neighborly ties, and then pivot to celebrating “disruptive innovation,” the Uber-style tailoring of schools to kids, efforts to shutter “dropout factories,” and the end of “zip-code education.”

That this tension has been overlooked is due largely to the fact that it’s less evident in the urban coastal bastions that are the focus of the contemporary education debate. These are the districts with which education advocates, major media, and influencers are most familiar. In these cities, the attraction of neighborhood schools can be diminished by the impersonality of massive school districts, high rates of mobility, the districts’ persistently poor performance, and the widespread availability and use of private options.

But the conflict between choice and local control is very real across much of suburban and rural America — especially in red states, where parents and community members tend to be satisfied with and protective of their local schools. The vast majority of the nation’s 14,000 districts are small, fully a third consisting of just one or two schools. In the 70 percent of school districts that enroll fewer than 2,500 students, individual relationships with the local schools tend to be personal.

Across much of the nation, the zip-code-based schools that education reformers decry are a hub of the community. They help define local identity. Their sports teams are sources of pride and an anchor of routine. Their accomplishments and foibles are touchstones of local conversation. They offer predictability; parents know where their children will go to school. It is easier for children to become friends with children who live nearby and for parents to get to know their neighbors. In this way, local schools serve as engines of social capital — bringing people together and strengthening communities.

Given all this, it’s understandable that families in such communities might regard school choice as a threat more than an opportunity.

School-choice advocates have compelling responses. School choice allows families to escape geographic monopolies and become part of voluntary school communities that must earn and maintain their loyalty. It can crack open hidebound systems, introduce healthy competition, and bring pressure to bear on unresponsive bureaucracies or anachronistic contracts. It can complement and enrich community dynamics rather than weaken them.

But school choice can also involve transporting students to schools far outside their neighborhoods, the disruption of valued routines, and policies that separate neighbors. This should give pause to those who care about community ties, quality of life, and social capital.

None of this is intended as a brief for school districts. The authors of this article are both longstanding proponents of expanded educational choice. But it’s worth grasping why so many Americans remain attached to the local school systems that reformers routinely denigrate. Even after a quarter century of steady growth in charter schooling, private-school choice, and home schooling, more than 80 percent of the nation’s students attend district schools.

In urban locales where school choice has flourished and been celebrated, there has been energetic backlash from portions of the community. In Newark and New Orleans — where district schools struggled for decades and charter schools have excelled — many residents decried an “invasion” of outsiders and successfully reinstituted local school boards.

In suburban communities such as Douglas County, Colo., right-leaning parents turned skeptical about school choice. In Massachusetts, a high-profile ballot initiative to allow more charter schools failed largely because suburban parents feared more school choice would disrupt their local schools.

This is not to suggest that conservatives should retreat from their decades-long support of school choice. It does, however, mean recognizing that reformers have erred in casually ascribing critiques of dysfunctional big-city systems to all of the nation’s 14,000 districts. More fundamentally, it argues for recognizing two legitimate, competing visions of localism — one geographic, one voluntary and market-based. Both have much to recommend them.

What does that mean in practice?

First, approach school choice as part of an education agenda rather than the sum of it. For instance, career and technical education has such appeal because it’s an inclusive, practical way to address a real concern of countless families — whether their kids will be prepared for the world of work. Expanding online options and dual-enrollment models are examples of choice-based reforms that could complement local systems.

Second, promote school choice with an eye to respecting, rather than slighting, concerns about how “disruption” can upend communities. This means talking about school closures as regrettable, not a bloodless consequence of vibrant markets. It means empathizing with, rather than ridiculing, suburban parents concerned that school choice might disrupt their communities. And it means acknowledging that conventional notions of school choice are frequently a poor answer for much of rural America, where the next-closest junior high might be 40 miles away.

Third, seek policy solutions that respect the healthy desire for both community and choice. For example, some cities have allowed charter schools to employ “neighborhood preferences,” meaning the school remains primarily choice-based but local families have a better shot of getting in. And in New Orleans, most of the charter schools are now overseen by an elected board. While the details matter immensely, there’s real value in seeking ways to empower families while also respecting geographic communities.

Lastly, part of what fuels nervousness about school choice is the sense that communities and their heritage are being sacrificed in the service of some grand policy agenda. This concern can be strongest in conservative communities. In smaller towns, when they talk about schools, residents and community leaders frequently bring up the importance of high-school sports or the ways that elementary schools help bring new parents into community networks. State and local leaders working to expand school choice should explore ways to protect the civic goods offered by local systems, for example by permitting students in choice-based schools to participate in the sports teams of traditional public schools and encouraging partnerships that enable alternative and traditional schools to cooperatively raise funds for good causes and host community activities.

In recent decades, school choice has brought dynamism, discipline, and innovation to a sclerotic system. But along the way, its proponents have sometimes lost sight of the virtues of neighborly, locally controlled schools. At a time when many voters feel discounted, discombobulated, and disconnected, state and local officials should approach school reform in a manner that’s sensitive to these concerns.

— Mr. Hess is the director of education-policy studies, and Mr. Smarick is the Morgridge Fellow in education studies, at the American Enterprise Institute.

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