Plan Would Nationalize Schools to End Disparities
SCOTT SIMON, host:
Ideas about how to improve public education in the United of States have run from national tests to smaller classes to merit pay for teachers. But Matt Miller has a challenging article in the current Atlantic Monthly. Mr. Miller, who's now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, says that schools often cannot improve themselves because of local control, and he calls for federalizing public education. Matt Miller joins us from NPR West.
Mr. MATT MILLER (Center for American Progress): Great to be with you.
SIMON: Quite a provocative title on this article. It's "First, Kill all the School Boards." What's your problem with local control?
Mr. MILLER: Well, my concern is with American education generally. And if you look at where we are today, we spend more money than just about every advanced country in the world, and we're in the middle to the bottom of the pack in terms of test scores and school performance. And when you ask yourself what's different about the U.S. system from the other advanced nations that are doing better, the thing that pops out is our tradition of radical local control of schools, especially in school finance and in the standards that we set for what we expect kids to learn. And other countries that are doing better with less money are doing it differently.
Mr. MILLER: Yes. I mean most of the other countries have some kind of set of national standards that they expect all kids to know. And in our system, we have 15,000 local school districts. Now, in the last decade or so the states in the standards movement have been trying to get into the act and - because we've realized we need a higher level of government to try and make this happen. But some states do a great job, like Massachusetts. In others, especially some of the poorer states like Mississippi or Alabama or South Carolina, are really struggling. And that's partly because they spend far less per pupil than some of the wealthier states do.
SIMON: When you talk about spending inequities, let me point out a statistic that in fact might be very familiar to you. The per pupil amount that's spent on students in the District of Columbia is about $13,000, or was in 2005. Just across the way in Montgomery County, Maryland, it's less than that. It's 12,000. But Montgomery County still has among the top public schools in the country, and the District of Columbia's are, I believe, the statistical worst. So what difference does funding make?
Mr. MILLER: Washington, D.C. and places like Newark, New Jersey are so poorly managed and so dysfunctional that more money going in at the top isn't producing results. But if you look at most of the urban areas and compare them to their nearby affluent suburbs, the suburbs spend substantially more. And that's why they have the best teachers, the best facilities, and by in large much better results.
SIMON: Reading through your article, you seem to have a special disdain, if I might put it that way, for school boards and for teachers unions.
Mr. MILLER: Well, I think that especially in our big cities, where most of the poor children in the country get educated, they are populated largely by wannabe politicians. They've been totally captured by the teachers unions and the other adult interests that do a lot of business with the school district. And so the unions tend to finance the school board elections, and when they elect their own candidates, they're basically sitting on both sides of the table in any negotiation. And this is not to say that teachers are a problem. Teachers are wonderful, and we need to do a lot more to raise the pay of teachers and encourage a new generation of teachers to come into teaching. But the unions, their kind of unholy relationship with school boards, is part of the problem.
SIMON: Among many other ideas, though, isn't part of the idea of local control of schools that it's a way of keeping parents and communities involved?
Mr. MILLER: That's the theory. But in fact the paradox I found was that if you set the standard nationally and then give the local schools real autonomy to find whatever works to meet those clear standards, that's where you get the best results. What you find now when you talk to principals and teachers is that they're just compliance machines. There are so many layers of rules - from the school board, then from the state, then from the federal government - that they end up ticking boxes rather than really trying to figure out how to tailor education to each of their kids.
SIMON: Ostensibly, there are some national standards though, aren't there? And No Child Left Behind requires states to test children in the third to eighth grade.
Mr. MILLER: What No Child Left Behind did was to say that we were going to test in these grades in certain subjects, but it left it totally to the discretion of each state to define what its standards would be and how it would test and get there. So what all the research has shown is that you've got a kind of race to the bottom developing among the states to dumb down their standards in ways that let the politicians say we're making progress, but what actually gives us no ability as a country to know how we're doing because there are 50 different systems with radically different approaches.
For example, Massachusetts - again, one of the leaders in this - what they require a fourth grade student to understand in reading comprehension is a passage from Tolstoy. And when you look at some other states, it's more like a kind of see Jane run. And why should we expect a child in Birmingham to learn less than a child in Boston?
SIMON: I want to raise something to you that has occurred to us. If the federal government were to be responsible for public education in this country, what would prevent, say, a president or a Congress from mandating - I'll just make up a couple of things - let's say the teaching of creationism in every school curriculum.
Mr. MILLER: Those are fair questions, and there's always going to be a fear that any national government, just like any state government, might do things like that. But I think the thing that I think we ought to focus on is two roles where the government nationally can make a difference. One is in school finance, where today the federal government only contributes 9 percent of what we spend on our K-to-12 schools, and it's the reason we have such dramatic disparities between wealthier districts and communities and less wealthy ones. And then on setting standards in a core set of subjects - reading, science, math - where we can pretty much agree on what a lot of the facts are.
SIMON: Mr. Miller, is it hard to get fresh thinking paid to the question of education, especially during an election year?
Mr. MILLER: Well, yes. That's why I wrote the piece, because to me education is at the root of everything we're trying to do on the economic side. And because there's so many powerful interests that have a stake in the current way that things are set up, it's very hard to ask the fundamental questions about why is local control the way can conceive it. Why is local financing - which is so unjust in this country and hurts so many poor communities - why is that something that we ought to have? And so I'm hoping to at least nudge the debate in a different direction by talking about this.
SIMON: Matt Miller, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. His article "First, Kill all the School Boards" is in the current issue of the Atlantic. Thank you so much.
Mr. Miller: Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.