Guest columnist Ben Tobin: The case for removing local control in our schools


Published: 09-05-2023 2:42 PM

As we approach the start of another school year it is long past time to look at the question of removing local control from our schools.

The notion of each community having autonomy over its neighborhood schools, while utopian and aspirational in intent, presents with a host of problems in practice. Speaking as a teacher in schools, and habitually running into the same issues, like districts following the “child find mandate” to identify kids with disabilities and following even basic accountability and safety measures, I’m ready for big, sweeping change. Ironically, our education system is one of the least evolved and the most recalcitrant — the least open to change and growth.

Our educational system in Massachusetts is run by a toothless organization in the Department of Early and Secondary Education, which has neither the means nor the temperament to ensure that schools honor the basic civil rights of students and their families, and the basic rights of staff, and has been resigned to producing pamphlets with expensive graphics and finger wagging from the sidelines.

The hard truth I learned as an educator in this state is that, firstly, there is hardly anyone at the state or local level looking out for staff rights, and secondly, that there is hardly anyone looking out for student and family rights. Our system is so entrenched in dysfunction and so used to dysfunction that even a worldwide pandemic couldn’t bring about change — though many of us hoped that when the system emerged from the rubble that it would, following the trauma of COVID, become more self-reflective and elect to change how things have worked for so long — or, rather, not worked.

The issues with our system in Massachusetts only became more glaring in the harsh screenlight of Zoom. So many people realized that their children couldn’t read well or do basic math or write a paragraph, and it wasn’t the virus causing the missing skills. The virus simply pulled back the curtain and revealed the not so wonderful wizard behind it.

The education system has become so abstracted away from working for students and so bogged down in creating ever more tenuous administrative posts (at taxpayer expense) that it has become very difficult to get anywhere when it comes to actually serving students beyond perfunctory responsibilities. It’s all about checking boxes and making it seem like education is happening to avoid the Emperor’s New Clothes-esque truth that precious little educating is happening anymore. When the red shoes stop tapping, and the convoluted jargon stops flowing, what is left?

When presenting solutions, the common refrain from the state is that the state and the education department can’t get involved and they defer to a local authority. Public records requests go unanswered, disabled students go unidentified, money gets wasted on harmful, expensive curriculum rooted in constructivism, and nothing changes.

It’s generally acknowledged that the system is broken (most anyone in education will admit that) but what follows is a shoulder shrug. This lack of consistent language and policy continues to harm students because even simple, basic laws like ensuring kids with disabilities are identified and offered services becomes a herculean effort on the part of families and advocates.

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We need a new system of accountability, a new system for establishing educational leadership that is less insular. While perhaps relinquishing local control entirely is too much of a pendulum swing, we need to do something different for the sake of our students. Providing schools with yet more money for more administrative positions and more expensive, non-evidence-based curriculum, and continuing the cycle of burning out staff and failing students, is not sustainable morally, economically, and otherwise.

Ben Tobin lives in Williamsburg.