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Democracy and Education

The War on Local Control of Schools Continues

Local democratic control over education has been under assault for three decades. Sometimes this takes the form of federal mandates to use “Common Core” curriculum and high stakes standardized tests. These have been implemented largely without regard for local feedback and by using empty threats to school funding to silence parent and teacher objections to these policies. 

At other times the assault takes the form of market-style reform that seeks to run schools “like a business” using charter schools or voucher programs. On the surface both of these seem to offer more parent control in the form of school choice. And occasionally, when charter schools are developed locally as nonprofits — as with 4J’s Village School or Springfield’s A3 school — parent influence can be enhanced. 

However, an increasing number of charter schools in this country are corporate owned, one-size fits all, rigid testing-oriented academies imposed on “low performing” schools. Diane Ravitch has estimated that 95 percent of charter schools operate outside of union contracts, pay teachers less, require longer work hours and end up relying on recent college graduates for staffing. 

This inexperience and high turnover result in less responsiveness to parents and communities. Private schools with full enrollment are able to exclude students and ignore parents at their leisure. 

The bipartisan support for local disempowerment is hard to understand, but harder to deny. President Barack Obama’s secretary of education, Arne Duncan, spent six years threatening states and districts if they did not use the national high-stakes standardized tests that he asserted would make a difference. 

And now President-elect Donald Trump and his choice for secretary of education, billionaire GOP mega-donor Betsy DeVos, are poised to push an agenda emphasizing voucher programs and for-profit charter schools. Her programs in Michigan have already proven to be both economic and academic disasters with expensive duplication of programs, increased segregation and the replacement of elected school officials with corporate heads. 

The sad fact is that parents and ordinary citizens interested in public school education have had few friends in the federal government since George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act with bipartisan support in 2001. 

And the problem isn’t just federal. In Oregon, former Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber engineered the replacement of a democratically elected state superintendent of schools with one appointed by the governor’s office. Deputy Superintendent of Education Salam Noor has made every effort to discourage parents from exercising their opt-out rights by complicating the bureaucratic process. Incomprehensibly, he has recently responded to parent, teacher and legislative objections to the excessive amount of time spent on Smarter Balanced standardized testing by proposing more time be spent on tests.  

What has all this centralized control over public schools achieved? Have schools vastly improved? No, they have not. Drop out rates in Oregon are embarrassingly high. Achievement gaps remain unmoved. Scarce funds have been diverted to the profitable testing industry. That is what deferring to Department of Education “experts” has gotten us. 

 So what can we do? We can reassert local control of schools. They are our schools, and they are our children. Here are some concrete steps we can take:

• Push back against the recent wave of standardized testing that seems to be winning the day. If we parents keep the pressure on by opting our kids out, those tests are unlikely to be re-funded once the current contract expires next year. Opting out empowers parents and students.

• Elect local school board members who will speak back to the Oregon Department of Education, not try to cajole parents into conforming to problematic state and federal policies. The Springfield School Board has been better at this than the 4J School Board.

• Insist that our legislators and governor push back against federal overreach into our schools, not roll over for every authoritarian federal mandate. 

• Make the Oregon Department of Education focus on common sense improvements like smaller class sizes, more time on instruction and less on testing, and more professional development for teachers. 

• Be prepared to continue fighting for better funding of our schools.

• Urge our senators to block the nomination of Betsy DeVos — a known advocate for school privatization —for U.S. secretary of education.

If we want better schools, we will have to make it happen ourselves, from the grassroots up. This can be done. There are few forces in a democracy more powerful than people defending the wellbeing of the children in their communities. Put the public back into our public schools.