What Happened to Local Control?

Education Reform as a Way to Help Build Community

By David Tyack

Will education reform be based on the real lives of real children, or on edicts from policy-makers?

I want to talk about what I think is a lost opportunity in American education: the power of local control to link public schools more firmly to their communities.

Our national policy discussions about the purposes of education have been radically narrowed in recent years into a survivalist style of thinking. But at the local level, a fuller sense of the purposes of education has remained alive and needs to be quickened.

Tip O’Neil said that all politics is local. I would argue that all education and all education reform is local. For two centuries, local control of education — local determination of purpose and practice — has been a fundamental building block of our educational system. It’s not just a way to govern schools; it is also a way to establish, face-to-face, a sense of purpose, a public philosophy of education.

Americans have shown repeatedly, in polls and focus groups and surveys, that they respect local control and local schools far more than distant governments and distant schools. My approach to education reform is to find the strong places and build on them. If you find trust in local control, strengthen it. I think that one of the most needed reforms in public education is having more opportunities for people at the local level to renegotiate a social contract with their schools, to awaken a greater sense of the common good. We need to ask: “Why do we have schools? Why educate?”

I’m bothered about recent national policy talk in education. Our sense of purpose in education has become radically restricted and often out of touch with what concerns people at the local level. National gurus typically talk about education and economic survival, and about students as potential human capital. In such a perspective, the purpose of education gets narrowed down to making us economically competitive, to beating the Japanese or Germans or whoever is on the top of the economic heap.

Is this what bothers everyday people at the local level? I doubt it. I talked recently with a mother who took her child to the local school to register her in kindergarten. Kids in the playground were running around hitting one another, the hallways smelled bad and were marked by graffiti, and classrooms were overcrowded and boisterous. The principal treated her arrival as an interruption of more important tasks.

The ethos of the school was uncaring and disorderly. These are immediate, fixable faults, and the mother joined a group of local parents who are determined to elect a school board that will work hard on the problems. They have many allies in the district staff. Slowly but surely, they expect to improve their school, step by step.

National policy elites in education are often on a different wave-length from people like this mother. Along with their economic survivalist view of education, they want to make things over immediately, preferably by yesterday. They want total victory.

When the language of survivalism, competition, and total victory takes over, it’s not clear to me who is waging war on whom. The language of battle is used to frighten citizens into activity. Adults conjure up bogeymen to frighten children. Elite policy-makers discover bogey nations to panic citizens about American “human capital.”

My point is not to say that we do not need better trained workers, because I think we do. But preparing the young to be good adult workers is only one of the historic and present purposes of schooling. We also need better democrats, more people aware of the common good and willing to work for it. We need capital humans quite as much as human capital, narrowly defined. It’s that narrow definition of why we educate that bothers me.

As I’ve talked with citizens in different parts of the country, I’ve found that there is a far richer sense of what schools are for than we generally hear in policy talk on the national level. One way to find this out is to ask people what was the best experience they had in elementary or secondary school. I’ve done this with business people in Kansas City, with members of the Oakland school board, with PTAs, with local citizens in diverse communities. It’s almost universal that teachers figure as the key people. A teacher who made a subject come alive. A teacher who comforted when a grandmother died. A teacher who created an atmosphere in the classroom in which every student felt safe and known. A teacher who challenged pupils when they weren’t doing their best. A teacher who helped children to mediate their differences, to befriend one another.

When people think about their own best experiences, not about the abstractions of human capital, they tend to think about social learning, about intellectual excitement. In other words, they are remembering learning, generously construed. Not just filling in the bubbles on some test, but getting excited about a subject, learning how to live productive†tly with others, absorbing the habits of civility.


I’d like to look briefly at the history of local control. Why has local control been the dominant tradition? Why have policy elites tried to weaken it? Why has local control been hobbled in recent decades? From the start of the nation, Americans have distrusted distant government, whether that of King George III or even state governments. The idea of devolving the functions of government downward is hardly a new idea. We have a phobia about people at a distance telling us what to do. Throughout the 19th century, citizens wrote and rewrote state constitutions carefully restricting what state governments could do. Our national government, as well, has been limited in its functions throughout most of our history. When the U.S. Office of Education was created, it had a staff of six people and a tiny budget.

Most Americans agreed that if we were going to have public schools, they should be controlled at the local level. That way, elected local officials could retain collective decisions about schooling — who would teach, how much schools would cost, and what kind of instruction to offer.

Logically, a people that so distrusted strong government might have been expected not to have any public schools. But that was not the case. After decades of building public schools controlled mostly by local school boards, about nine out of ten children were attending public schools at the end of the 19th century. Americans devoutly believed that a republican form of government required educated citizens. After the Civil War, every new state included in its constitution the right of every child to a free, non-sectarian common school education.

How was that system of local schools governed? By a highly decentralized system of trustees, usually three to a school in rural areas. In the 19th century there were many more trustees than teachers, and school trustees in the U.S. were the largest group of public officials in the world.

The term trustee is worth examining. A trustee is one who holds something in trust, in this case the common schools created by each district. Mann wrote that school trustees had one of the most important jobs in the world, for they held in trust the welfare not only of the next generation but of the nation. He said they were heirs of all the benefits passed on by previous generations. It was their duty to be custodians of the present and shapers of the future.

Let’s go visit Mantua Village, Ohio, in 1841. Darwin Atwater, a school trustee, is writing his annual report. He says this: “The earth in its annual revolution prompts us to consider again what has been done during the year that has passed and what can be done during the year to come in the school in our neighborhood to forward the great enterprise of educating the human race. No task is more important than to devise means to forward the education of our children who are soon to succeed us in active life and be our representatives for ages to come.” Atwater would have understood today’s aphorism that children may be 20% of our population but they are 100% of our future.

In most cities as well as in the countryside, district trustees actually administered the system in the 19th century, whether on the large central boards or on ward boards. In 1904, Philadelphia had 504 members on local ward boards and 42 on the central board.

For the last century, elite policy makers in education have done their best to weaken strong lay control of local districts. They did not regard such governance as flourishing democracy. Rather, they thought that school trustees were apt to be penny-pinching and parochial, ignorant and sometimes corrupt (especially in cities). What was needed, they argued, was to “take the schools out of politics,” which usually meant taking lay people out of governance and turning as many decisions as possible over to professionals.

Although American school governance remained the most decentralized in the world, the elite reformers did succeed in curbing local control of schools in two ways. First, they consolidated about 90% of rural school districts, thereby eliminating their boards of trustees. The one-room school has almost disappeared — a very successful reform if you think that big is better. Second, in the cities they largely abolished ward school committees, cut the size of the central boards, and installed a “corporate model” of school governance. After reorganizing the DuPont Company and General Motors, Pierre S. DuPont centralized the Delaware schools.

Professional leaders were proud of their achievement. Education seemed too important to be left to the vagaries of “politics.” If in the process the traditional forms of lay governance and parental participation in education were weakened, the gain in expertise was the prize.

In recent years citizens have continued to trust local control, and policy analysts have bypassed local districts in their plans. Reformers have discussed national standards, state curricular frameworks, and school site management.


In general, when reformers have not ignored local districts and their boards, they have given them bad press. Local school boards, say critics, spend too much time on trivia, drag their feet on innovation, and don’t have enough of the “right people.” And from time to time, analysts like Chester Finn say it’s time to abolish local districts as the “dinosaurs” of the school world.

Constraints on school districts have multiplied. Litigants have taken them to court, state legislatures have mandated curricular changes and new tests, teacher unions have used collective bargaining, and categorical programs have mushroomed. No wonder that school trustees complain that they have become “the forgotten players on the educational team.” But I remind you that the public still believes in local control. The Gallup Poll asked citizens who they trusted to make educational decisions. Fifty-seven percent of Americans said that they wanted local boards to have more control of education, and only 26% wanted more federal control. Public Agenda asked people this question: “Which groups do you trust to decide how the public schools in your community should be run?” Two thirds said that they trusted parents or teachers and less than one-third trusted business leaders or governors (note that at the educational “Summit” of governors and business leaders in March 1996, there was only one teacher member and none from the PTA).

What might be some implications for action? I’d like to suggest (it’s only a suggestion, for I see no sure “lessons” from history) that this is a time when local journalists, educators, and activists might work to revitalize local control and help to renegotiate the social contract between the public and their schools. To do this would require broader public participation and a closer link between purpose and politics than we see now even in most of the favored districts.

I don’t want to romanticize local control. Enhancing local control is no panacea. It won’t solve the “savage inequalities” in school finance. Locally controlled schools in the past — and now — have perpetuated racial, gender, and class inequalities. The worst-case scenarios in the poorest rural areas and big cities will require drastic action that goes well beyond my suggestions. But not all reforms need to be tailored to the worst-case scenarios. Let’s talk here about ordinary schools in modest-sized districts.

What are school politics like in these medium districts? Mike Kirst has a nice metaphor. He says that local school politics is an arroyo, a normally dry desert river bed that occasionally fills with a flash flood. The rush of water might be sex education, creationism, school closings, budget retrenchment, whole language instruction, the “new” new math, or any number of other emotional issues. When the flood comes, educators take a deep breath, the school board takes a deep breath, and local journalists have some conflict to feature, some hard news. Local politics is usually reactive, responding to single-issue concerns.

I would argue, however, that such a reactive stance — rather than proactively defining issues for deliberation — can be a mistake. Forums about schooling can become an instrument of democratic decision-making and continuing education of citizens. If the members of a community have any common interest, it should be a concern for the education of the next generation. Why should not school boards, PTAs, the League of Women Voters, corporations or unions, and civic groups of many kinds not work together with local newspapers and media to arrange public discussions of educational issues?

Forums on reforms can lead to another, deeper, dimension: finding common ground on the purposes of education. There is a good deal of evidence that citizens do agree on many goals. The Public Agenda Foundation found nearly universal consensus on the importance of promoting equity, tolerance of differences, and peaceful conflict resolution, for example. They also agree on the importance of both the “basics” and safe, orderly schools. People no doubt differ on the particulars — just what constitutes the “basics” or the proper scope of multicultural instruction, for example — but it is important to seek common ground, nonetheless.

I know that talking about the public good may seem hopelessly naive when talk about competition and discord dominates discussion of education, when confidence in public institutions sags, when people are careless about the things they hold in common, when saying that something is public today implies that it is not as good as the private, when education often is portrayed as a consumer good. But looking for the common good is not to seek a bland consensus, or delegating decisions to experts, or practicing public relations.

What is it, then? It is an ever-changing attempt to chart goals through debate and deliberation, negotiation and compromise, and to appeal to shared values.

David Tyack is a professor of education and history at Stanford University and the author of numerous books and essays. His latest book is Tinkering Toward Utopia: A Century of School Reform.

This article is adapted from a speech to the Education Writers Association (EWA). Copies of the complete speech can be obtained for $1.50 by calling or writing the EWA, 1331 H St. NW, Washington, DC 20005; 202-637-9700; fax 202-637-9707.