In a recent blog post, Iowa Department of Education Director Jason Glass called for Iowa to find the right balance between state and local control of Iowa’s public schools.

Nicholas J at Straight From the Desk responded with a sensible question.  With so many other pressing education issues, why waste time debating the merits of local control?

My answer to this question is that top-down, standardized-test driven accountability is a poor substitute for political accountability.

When decision-making authority is removed from the local level, our opportunities to hold anyone politically accountable for public school policy are diminished.  Elections for state legislature, governor, Congress, and president involve many issues besides education policy and many state- and federal-level policy makers don’t stand for election anyway (employees of the Iowa DE, Director Glass, members of the Iowa State Board of Education, employees of the US Department of Education, and Secretary Arne Duncan).

Consider Will Wilkinson’s observations about the federal bureaucracy (in response to Gary Gutting’s Are We a Democracy?), which I think apply equally well to state education bureaucracy:

Gutting’s [sic] makes several erroneous assumptions. He assumes the bureaucracy is really under the control of elected leaders, but it’s not. The federal bureaucracy is largely a creature of the executive branch. The president is elected, but the executive’s political appointees are not, though some of them are subject to congressional approval. Anyway, most of the personnel of the state is permanent, and varies only slightly as partisan governments come in and out of power. The actual exercise of power in the various bureaucracies is subject to democratic oversight in only the most tenuous sense. Indeed, when bureaucracies become too large, it becomes impossible for elected representatives to supervise their activities on the behalf of the general welfare.

“More government” can mean different, quite incompatible things. For example, it can mean “more state” or “greater democratic control.” If one really means “greater democratic control,” an increase in the size and power of the bureaucracy is generally a move in the wrong direction. More state can mean less government in this sense. And this leads us directly to Gutting’s most important error: the assumption that elected leaders and the bureaucracy generally work against rather than for the interests of “millionaires and corporations.” There’s little reason to believe this. Big government and corporatism go together like Hall and Oates.

And consider Chief Justice Roberts’ observations on political accountability from the Affordable Care Act case (courtesy of Chris at A Blog About School, see the first comment here), which I think can also apply equally well to state officials compelling local school districts to take unpopular actions:

“When Congress compels the States to do its bidding, it blurs the lines of political accountability. If the Federal Government makes a controversial decision while acting on its own, ‘it is the Federal Government that makes the decision in full view of the public, and it will be federal officials that suffer the consequences if the decision turns out to be detrimental or unpopular.’ But when the Federal government compels the States to take unpopular actions, ‘it may be state officials who will bear the brunt of public disapproval, while the federal officials who devised the regulatory program may remain insulated from the electoral ramifications of their decision.’ For this reason, federal officeholders may view this ‘departur[e] from the federal structure to be in their personal interests. . . as a means of shifting responsibility for the eventual decision.’ And even state officials may favor such a ‘departure from the constitutional plan,’ since uncertainty concerning responsibility may also permit them to escape accountability. If a program is popular, state officials may claim credit; if it is unpopular, they may protest that they were merely responding to a federal directive.” (Emphasis [Chris’s]; citations omitted.)

You can start to see why we find ourselves in the absurd situation of apparently needing an act of Congress to get a few minutes added to the lunch period of local school children.

Everyone in the system has plausible deniability about being responsible for any particular policy decision.  Any given person in the system can point to someone else up or down the chain from the classroom teacher to the principal to the superintendent to the school board to the state government or to the federal government.

As self-governing people, we have a right to expect that we will have a meaningful voice in shaping our public institutions so that they serve the goals and needs of our communities in accordance with the values and preferences of our communities.  We can’t have that voice when the decision makers are largely inaccessible and politically unaccountable to us.

Iowans spent more than five billion dollars on public education for the 2010-11 school year.  Democratic oversight is essential to ensure that money is spent in service of the interests of our communities, which I think suggests that the right “balance” for Iowa is heavily weighted in favor of local control.

For more thoughts on local control, click on the “local control” category in the side bar here and over at A Blog About School.

What do you think about the current (and proposed) balance between state and local control of Iowa’s public schools?  Is the debate about local control one you think is worth having?