States with Local Control of Schools Achieve Higher Scores

Published February 1, 1998

From his first-term Goals 2000 initiative to last year’s promotion of national education standards, President Bill Clinton has worked to wrest authority over public schools from local communities and transfer it to state and federal governments, arguing that doing so would lead to the establishment and achievement of higher standards. But an analysis of the relationship between student achievement and local control suggests the President’s policy may be flawed.

Clinton launched a frontal assault on local control of education just over a year ago in Deerfield, Illinois, where he was honoring a consortium of twenty Illinois school districts seeking to be “first in the world.” (See “Clinton Attacks Local Control of Schools,” School Reform News, March 1997.) Although the consortium appears to be an example of locally controlled school boards striving for higher achievement, it is in fact not locally funded, and local elected officials have no authority over the group.

“We can no longer hide behind our love of local control of the schools and use that as an excuse not to hold ourselves to high standards,” declared Clinton at the Deerfield event.

Does local control lead to low standards and poor test scores, as Clinton implies? And will centralizing authority over education lead to high standards and higher scores, as he claims? Answers to those questions may be found by analyzing National Assessment of Educational Progress test scores and state education classifications from the Education Commission of the States.

The average 1994 NAEP 4th-grade reading proficiency for states that participate in the tests (roughly a dozen do not) is 28; that is, 28 percent of U.S. students score at the “proficient” level or above. In those states with centralized decision-making authority over education, the average is lower, with only 24 percent of students scoring “proficient” or better. By contrast, in states with decentralized decision-making authority, the average is higher, at 33 percent.

The figures are similar for math achievement. The average 1992 NAEP 8th-grade math proficiency for participating states is 21. In states with centralized decision-making authority over education, the average is 9 percentage points lower at 13 percent. In states with local control, the average is 24 percent.

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].