Have you ever wondered why it seems that everything politicians touch in the name of "reform" ends up worse than before? Education reform in Michigan is a fine example of what happens when politicians' prescriptions fail to adhere to guiding principles that have provided good education in the past.
Take local control as a case in point. Instead of restoring control of education to parents, children, and teachers, reforms of the past decadeincluding Proposal A, charter schools, vouchers, and MEAP testinghave served to centralize decision-making with distant bureaucracies. And these reforms have, in true doublespeak fashion, done so in the name of "local control." How did this happen?
First, Proposal A of 1994 was sold as a means to reduce property taxes. However, this school financing scheme shifted financial responsibility for public schools from local communities to the state. Furthermore, the savings from Proposal A were not as great as proclaimed. The amount of taxes going outside the state to the federal government has increased because many property owners have lower deductions on their federal returns and they are unable to take advantage of the Homestead Property Tax Credit.
U.S. Rep. Peter Hoekstra and Kevin Clark, vice-president of the Holland Board of Education, in a March 20 commentary to the Grand Rapids Press entitled, "Local Control Dwindles under Proposal A," suggest that we may have "lost our local public schools to another hostile takeover" and that current limits imposed by the state have eroded local control.
Gov. Engler touted charter schools as a way to "break the mold" of the educational status quo and stimulate more experimentation in our public schools. The verdict isn't in yet, but preliminary studies seem to show little deviation from the traditional norm. Many of these schools are authorized by public universities, which also erodes local control. But most importantly, the pressure to do well on the MEAP ensures that most of these schools will be more concerned about conforming to state standards (read: the status quo) rather than experimenting with new, different, anddare we saybetter approaches.
Vouchers then were proposed as a way to empower parents in their choice of schools. But vouchers will merely lure private schools, and their constituencies, into the fold of state dependency. There is merit in the impulse for greater school choice, but relieving schools of state dependency through tax credits rather than state-funded vouchers would better preserve local control. Likewise, although the state has a valid interest in encouraging education, it should do so by letting parents keep their money to spend on education as they choose. This is true empowerment and local control.
It is the MEAP test, however, that is the main cord that binds educational reform to centralized control by the state. A few years ago there was a healthy debate going on about the necessity and use of the MEAP test. The arguments centered on whether another test was needed when the nationally normed tests, the ACT, and the SAT, seemed more appropriate. Many citizens have rightfully feared that the MEAP could be used as a tool for social engineering. The "correct" answers are determined more by a student's perspective than objective reasoning (please study a copy of this year's eighth-grade social studies MEAP and see if these fears are not well founded).
The state is even trying to buy off opposition to the MEAP by using federal tobacco settlement money to award MEAP-based college scholarship funds. Furthermore, private schools that once shunned the MEAP are now lining up to take the test so that their students could justifiably benefit from the scholarship program. Chalk up another victory for centralized control of education.
Why is local control so important? Local control is not a quaint new idea, it is the bedrock of our country's greatness. The wisdom of capitalism and the free market is that people are more productive when they have a vested interest. Local control and decision making is what assures a vested interest.
America's Founding Fathers understood the principle of local control and applied it in the design of our government. They understood that people take a greater interest in those things over which they have control than in those things they feel relatively helpless to affect. This same principle needs to be restored to our school system.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of state education policies are serving to further remove local control of education. Instead of centralizing such important decisions, it is time we stem the erosion of local control in Michigan and restore decision-making to the people most affected by the consequences.
David Follett, a 25-year veteran teacher, teaches at Crestwood Middle School in the Kentwood Public Schools. His wife, Mary, also teaches in the East Grand Rapids Schools.