Local control is best in education

Published 9:56 pm Wednesday, July 30, 2014

By Clay Scott

Plato told a story about prisoners kept in chains inside a dark cave. Behind them, a fire was maintained that provided warmth and light. Because the prisoners faced the cave wall, they could experience the world only by way of the shadows created by the firelight and the sounds echoing through the cave.

In many ways our current understanding of education is like the prisoners’ understanding of reality. In many ways, schools have been very much the same for at least three generations. This continuity has conditioned and created “blind spots” in our thinking.

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The relevant “blind spot” in this case is in the point from which schools are controlled. Consider a spectrum with the family on one end, representing the most local control, and the federal government on the other end, representing the most distant control.

In the early days of our country, a public school meant something very different than what it means today. Families got together and hired a teacher. They took turns feeding and housing him or her and pooled together a small salary.

Families had a significant say in education, because the point of control was very close to them. State and federal governments supported when and how they could. In fact, perhaps the largest federal allocation of resources for education occurred in 1789 with the ratification of the Northwest Ordinance.

From what I can tell, about 60 years into the life of our country, we began to see a shift in our approach to the role of government. People began to entertain the idea of governments beyond the local level as providers. Until that time, state and federal governments were seen not as providers but rather protectors, principally as protectors of individual liberties.

The development of our current education system could be seen as a direct and constant shift from local to distant control, with the Common Core program representing the culmination.

Roughly 20 years ago, the movement toward standardization began. Virginia was one of the first to adopt state-level standards that amounted to a single statewide curriculum. This change officially established Richmond as the central authority.

A central authority directs actions; it does not protect individual liberty. In fact, it views individual liberty as the enemy. Liberty creates differences in outcomes that are unacceptable to an entity obsessed with equality. Central authorities love equality because when people think, act and need the same things, they are easy to control.

But individuals who are free to either succeed or fail based on their respective industry will approach the same task with various levels of ability, resources and drive, each of which could provide the individual with a significant advantage. These will undoubtedly affect outcomes, thus complicating the Central Authority’s desire to maintain control.

The prevailing philosophy is that the state has responsibility to educate every child equally. Like every good socialist program, the propaganda points back to the people with phrases like “no child left behind,” “educating all students,” and “student-centered learning.” What is undeniable, however, is that in every important way, the state’s interest drives education in Virginia.

Rather than grasping at shadows, attempting to define quality education using the measures, data and priorities of the central authority, let us create our own. Plato’s purpose in his story of the cave was to demonstrate the transformative power of education.

So how do we win back our freedom when it comes to educating our children? It begins by becoming aware of our situation. It means questioning the unquestioned, rethinking priorities, redefining expertise and, most important, not buying into the propaganda.

Clay Scott, a resident of Franklin, teaches Spanish at King’s Fork High School. He holds a degree in Spanish from Brigham Young University, an MBA from Ashford University and is a doctoral candidate at George Washington University. Email him at barroescot@gmail.com.