The Struggle Over Public Education: Federal vs Local Control

Who controls public education in the United States? The passing of ESSA, Common Core, Race to the Top and NCLB may point in the direction of the federal government. However, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has caused tensions between federal and local control of schools to resurface.

 DeVos, an advocate of local control, claims that the key to improving America’s public education system is to shift control back to the states and roll back federal mandates on schools. But the struggle between local and federal control stretches back to the establishment of the first State Board of Education in 1837. Since then, the debate continues to draw a murky line between the federal government and states regarding their jurisdiction over public education.

Although the constitution does not grant the federal government power over the nation’s school system, on matters of education policy, the federal government tends to take the lead. The Common Core and Obama’s Race to the Top Initiative are two such examples. The Common Core is a set of standardized benchmarks in English and Math that proliferated across the country through Obama’s Race to the Top initiative, which offered federal funding to those states that implemented the Common Core in their schools. While these programs aimed to equip all students with equal knowledge upon high school graduation, the reaction from teachers, parents and local districts was largely negative. Many protested against a standardized k-12 curriculum and the pressure on students to meet federally outlined standards.

Pushing back against federal control, DeVos has advocated the expansion of school choice as a way to return power to the hands of local communities and families. School choice has become a battle cry for many parents, conservatives, and progressives alike as it gives families the power to choose their children’s school. However, while school choice may provide access to higher quality education for some families, many others are left behind as they lack the resources, time and expertise necessary to navigate school choice. Despite the appeal of state controlled education, studies have found that states provide more resources to wealthy districts than their higher need counterparts. The Education Law Center conducted a study that compared funding, coverage, and effort to evaluate state responsiveness to education and concluded that states inequitably fund schools on the intrastate, interstate, and even inter-district level. This unequal distribution of resources strains the academic disparity among wealthy and poor schools. Ultimately, while local control of education may seem like a better alternative, there is little reason to believe that states equitably organize their school systems.

 Currently, a majority of decisions regarding pedagogy, funding, teaching methods and school operations are made on the state and local level. But the inconclusive line between federal and state control of education has strained the organization of our public school system. The U.S Department of Education aims to determine the line between federal and local governments based on school funding sources—with only 8 percent of funding coming from the federal government, the current administration firmly believes that, “education is primarily a state and local responsibility in the United States.”

However, history reveals that education equality becomes more disparate in the hands of states as they each possesses their own capacity, willingness and interests to fund and support education. Therefore, the federal government must act as a system of checks and balances to promote greater financial and academic equity among students across the country. A clearer line must be drawn between the states and federal government in order to improve the organization of our public education system.