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Debate about Clinton's test plan overlooks fallacy of local control

During the Cold War, debates over disarmament often had a surreal quality to them: Did we need to be able to blow up the world 30 times or only 20 before we could feel safe?

Lurking in the background, obvious and yet frequently unspoken, was the real question: Do we need that capacity at all?

Today's debate over national education testing has some of the same "emperor has no clothes" flavor to it. President Clinton has argued that his proposal for voluntary national tests in reading for fourth-graders and math for eighth-graders will enhance local control of schooling by giving parents another way to hold their schools accountable. Conservative critics, chief among them Rep. Bill Goodling (R-Pa.), have denounced the plan as unacceptable federal intrusion into local control.

Again, the situation begs a deeper question: Is local control of schools such a great idea to begin with?

It is important to remember why the push for national testing arose. Clinton is responding to a widely held perception that there is a "crisis" in American education -- that students just aren't learning what they should. In fact, there's little evidence to support that claim. As scholars David Berliner and Bruce Biddle established in the 1995 book The Manufactured Crisis, most of the hard data indicate increases, not decreases, in performance, especially among minority groups. When pollsters ask Americans what they think of their local schools -- as opposed to the education system generally -- positive responses are the norm, suggesting that although the situation could always be better, students in most communities are indeed learning something.

So where is this perception of a crisis coming from? Many observers believe that the well-publicized problems of a few urban school districts -- the state takeover of the Cleveland public schools, for example, or the overcrowding in the New York system -- are to blame. These massive urban systems are coping with a disproportionate share of America's poor and minority children, nonnative English speakers and "special needs" students. Schools in these systems have nowhere near the resources necessary to do the job. In many cases, the strain is overwhelming, with students' low test scores and malaise among personnel the inevitable result. Given intense media focus on the problems of these mega-districts, it's only natural for people to feel that "the system" isn't working.

Which brings us back to local control of schools, because how effective the "system" is in America depends in large part upon where you live. If you live in a wealthy suburb, local control works in your favor -- your children probably attend a safe, well-equipped, attractive school staffed by caring, qualified educators. If you live in the inner city, the "system" hasn't been so kind. Your school is probably dilapidated, your technology primitive and your teachers under-qualified or inexperienced.

Why? Because local control of education, as it's presently structured, entails at least partial reliance on local funding. Schools situated in districts with lots of property wealth are likely to be much better off financially than schools located in depressed urban centers. Measured in per-pupil terms, suburban systems often have more than twice as many dollars at their disposal to educate kids already advantaged in myriad ways.

The naked truth is that local control is a systematic way of ensuring inequality in educational opportunity. Kids in wealthy areas get more of it; poor kids get less.

Minority activists who have criticized Clinton's testing program are right about one thing: We don't need new tests to tell us which schools have problems. What we need is a national commitment to improving troubled schools. Such a commitment could take many forms, but all of them would entail an expanded federal role in education, at least on the funding end. Despite charges of waste and mismanagement on the part of urban systems, the truth is that these schools need more of everything -- more in salaries to attract qualified educators, more in technology for kids who don't have computers at home, more in facilities for children whose lives outside school are unbearably drab.

Moreover, a genuine national commitment to improve schools would have to work for all kids, not just the lucky few who might benefit from proposals such as vouchers. Treating vouchers as the centerpiece of one's education program is like making lifeboats the basis of ship safety. It's a rescue operation, not a way to fix the underlying problem.

Despite the romantic appeal of local control of schools, rooted in America's traditional wariness about the concentration of power, the truth is that "local control" means very little for communities without the resources to deliver even basic educational services to their children. Tackling this basic, structural flaw -- a system that allocates opportunity on the basis of local wealth -- must be the cornerstone of genuine education reform.

If Clinton's testing proposal somehow calls attention to the fallacy of local control of schools -- at least to the extent that it means local funding -- it will have served a useful purpose. If not, the country will have missed an opportunity to end one of its last and most pernicious forms of de jure discrimination.

As every teacher knows, for a test to be of value, all students must have had an equal opportunity to succeed. As long as local control of schools remains the shibboleth of America's approach to education policy, that can't happen. Let's hope this point gets a hearing in the testing debate.

National Catholic Reporter, September 26, 1997