Research & Commentary: Local Control in Education

Published October 22, 2012

Parents and voters like the idea of local control in education, but they and politicians have differing definitions of it. This makes the concept a bit of a weasel word—something everyone agrees to but which they shape to fit their own interests and political philosophy.

Some liberals oppose local control because they prefer central command by administrative experts. Ironically, the nation’s long tradition of local control has yielded much power to unions and government bureaucrats, because voter turnout for local school board elections is extremely low and people who work in education are much more motivated to vote and seek votes than average taxpayers and parents, especially across a long period of time. This has secured unions power at the expense of taxpayers and students.

This sort of abuse makes many conservatives suspicious of entirely local control. As a result, conservatives in recent decades have pressed for outcome standards such as higher student test scores and graduation rates, in return for state and federal education funding. Added to an already complicated system of local, state, and federal regulations, this regime means schools cannot govern themselves even if they want to.

Reform advocates see local control as important but impossible to implement as long as tax dollars do not follow individual children to schools their parents are free to choose. True local control would put the power in the hands of those closest to and most responsible for children: their parents. Routing money and regulations through myriad agencies takes power from parents and local education officials, the very people who know most about what the individual children in their care really need.


The following documents offer more information about local control in education.

The Rub in Education: Federal v. Local Control
Former U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings observes that, for many people, “local control” means mismanagement, waste, and fraud of public schools because of mismanagement by entrenched interests. Current federal education regulations are the result of the discovery that sending money without strings did not improve education, she writes. Left to their own devices, she writes, states and school districts do not hold themselves accountable for improving student achievement.

At Least 82 Percent of Education Is Politics
Government control of schooling is about politics, not ensuring children are well-educated, writes Neal McCluskey of the Cato Institute. Politicians talk local control because it polls well, but they have created an education system that does anything but offer local parents and communities true control over their children’s schools.

Back to the Future: Re-Inventing Local Control
A confused and tangled web of rules and regulation, and a mob of adult interests such as teachers unions, textbook publishers, tutoring firms, bus companies, and the like, has impeded education reform, observes Peter Meyer in Education Next. Despite spending billions of dollars to fix things, the results remain lousy. Meyer recommends true local control: self-governing individual schools and a weighted student formula that sends all education dollars directly with each child to whatever school parents choose.

America’s Reform Challenge
We bow to the mantra of “local control,” yet nearly every major decision affecting education is shaped by at least four separate levels of government: federal, state, the local district, and individual schools, writes Michael Petrilli for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. He explains how this prevents local administrators from making the best decisions and recommends three central reforms: empowering school-level administrators and teachers to make nearly all key decisions about how their school operates; giving parents the right to choose among schools; and raising school funds centrally, then distributing them equitably to individual schools in return for acceptable academic results.

From School Choice to Educational Choice
The “whole school” approach to education reform has made it difficult for specialty education providers to get past bureaucratic rules and offer their services to parents, students, and teachers, write Frederick Hess, Olivia Meeks, and Bruno Manno in an American Enterprise Institute Outlook. “Unbundling” education means offering students an assortment of services instead of an indivisible package of “education.” Such services could be packaged and customized to fit specific student needs and abilities. Virtual schooling and customized educational tools are breaking the whole-school model. Consumers need information on their choices as well as funding options that allow them to choose customized services, and school districts and schools ought to begin restructuring to allow this flexibility.

Democracy—Whatever That Is—and Education
Neal McCluskey of the Cato Institute explains why a government education monopoly inevitably leads to social tensions and education mismanagement: It takes power away from individuals to meet children’s education needs through voluntary exchange. This explains why local control is impossible when government controls education, McCluskey writes.

Beyond the School District
A major cause of U.S. educational mediocrity is our deeply flawed system for organizing and operating public schools, writes Chester Finn Jr. in National Affairs. The current approach to school management is a confused and tangled web among the federal government, states, and local school districts—each with ill-defined responsibilities and often conflicting interests. Finn proposes moving away from the traditional school district toward empowering families, volunteer groups, education organizations, and neighborhoods to create and run schools.

Breaking the Public Monopoly on K-12
Although scores of studies show privatizing services such as prisons, police, transportation, and garbage collection results in happier customers, better products, and lower costs, the U.S. education system has been virtually untouched by such findings, writes Herbert J. Walberg in Defining Ideas, the Hoover Institution’s journal. He discusses lessons for the United States from Sweden’s privatized system, which has high international academic rankings and lower costs.

Reducing the Federal Footprint on Education and Empowering State and Local Leaders
Increasing federal intervention in education has caused significant growth in state bureaucracy to comply with federal regulations, straining the time and resources of local schools, writes Lindsey Burke in a Heritage Foundation Backgrounder. Instead of responding first to students, parents, and taxpayers, state systems and local districts focus on mandates from Washington because of federal education funding. The proposed Academic Partnerships Lead Us to Success Act directs accountability to those with the most at stake in student and school success: parents and taxpayers. Policymakers also should downsize the Department of Education, Burke writes.


Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this and other topics, visit the School Reform News Web site at, The Heartland Institute’s Web site at, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database, at

If you have any questions about this issue or The Heartland Institute, contact Heartland education policy research fellow Joy Pullmann, at 312/377-4000 or [email protected].