Controlling Public Education

Localism Versus Equity

Kathryn A. McDermott

Most Americans believe that local school districts are the only means by which citizens may exercise control over public education. Kathryn McDermott argues to the contrary that existing local institutions are no longer sufficient for achieving either equity or democratic governance. Not only is local control inequitable, it also fails to live up to its reputation for guaranteeing public participation and citizen influence. Drawing upon democratic theory and the results of field research in New Haven, Connecticut, and three suburbs, McDermott contends that our educational system can be made more democratic by centralizing control over funding while decentralizing most authority over schools to the level of schools themselves while enacting public school choice controlled for racial balance.

To many people in Connecticut and elsewhere, the tension between equal opportunity for all students and local control of public education seems impossible to resolve. In 1996, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled in Sheff v. O'Neill that local control produces unconstitutional segregation of public schools. Nearly all of the state's 169 towns operate their own public schools, and, like the towns they serve, the schools are generally homogeneous with respect to race and socioeconomic class. In the Sheff ruling, the court declared that making school districts coterminous with town lines "is the single most important factor contributing to the present concentration of racial and ethnic minorities in the Hartford public school system." At the same time, the court also acknowledged that the town-based school system "presently furthers the legitimate nonracial interests of permitting considerable local control and accountability in educational matters."

“McDermott presents an interesting and refreshing approach to reconciling equity and local control considerations.

—Political Science Quarterly

“This book ties together critical issues relating to educational equity, citizen participation, and federalism—issues that most other analyses of what ails American schools treat independently, if at all.”

—Jeffrey R. Henig, author of Rethinking School Choice

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In Connecticut and elsewhere, it has often seemed necessary to choose between local control and equity in public education, and local control has almost always won. McDermott argues that rather than seeing local control and equity as conflicting goals, policymakers should regard them as equally important components of democracy in public education. In her view, a truly democratic system of education should both encourage citizen participation in school governance and contribute to the formation and maintenance of a social order in which equality of opportunity prevails over hierarchies of privilege. Centralizing distribution of resources and using controlled choice to end racial isolation would provide greater equality of opportunity, while decentralizing management of schools would expand citizen participation.

McDermott's conclusions break new ground in our understanding of local school governance itself and call into question the conventional wisdom about local participation. These findings should interest those who study school governance and reform—especially in an urban setting—as well as policy makers, administrators, teachers, students, and citizens eager to improve their schools.

About the Author

Kathryn A. McDermott is assistant professor of educational policy, research, and administration at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

Additional Titles in the Studies in Government and Public Policy Series