Asserting Self-Governance in Education

A core principle of the American ideal is self-governance. The rise of technical expertise, combined with a “progressive” vision of a state-led society, has undermined that vision. Fortunately, examples of self-governance can still be found, and in some cases, growing in number. One place you find them is in education.

Today, roughly 9 out of 10 children are educated in a public school that is mired in red tape and increasingly centralized. During the 70 years between 1932 and 2002, the number of school districts declined by 90 percent, in the name of efficiency. But as districts consolidate, central administrators and teacher union officials become more powerful, more distant, and more out of touch with parents.

The single teacher in a one-room schoolhouse has been replaced by an army of administrators and support staff holding very specialized, technical positions. This development was driven both by philosophical changes in the education industry and by new laws. In the 1960s, for example, President Lyndon Johnson launched “Great Society” initiatives. They were based on the belief that a new class of intellectuals and public officials, the “experts,” could scientifically eliminate long-standing human problems.

The preschool program Head Start, for example, was created as a weapon in the “war on poverty.” Head Start was followed by several other major initiatives. Some, such as No Child Left Behind, attempt to boost student achievement. Others, such as Race to the Top, indirectly shape policies regarding teachers. The Common Core Standards Initiative seeks to reshape academic standards and, some fear, curricula in classrooms across the country. Professionalization and centralization rule the day.

As Dr. Phil might say, “How’s that working out for you?” More and more people are concluding, “not very well.” The problems of public schools are well known, but two stand out above all: Costs are rising and student achievement is, at best, improving at a glacial pace. In the face of these problems, some people are turning to self-governance as a solution.

The oldest form of institutional self-reliance is the private school. Roughly 8 percent of nation’s children attend one. Parents who opt for this route must pay for public schools (as all citizens do), and then pay tuition. As a result, they have a financial incentive to make sure that their dollars are well spent. Private schools, which have no guaranteed form of income, have a similar incentive. They are free from the most burdensome of rules governing public schools, though some chose to adhere to them.

The oldest form of “private schooling” is homeschooling. The number of homeschooling students has grown from perhaps 50,000 in 1985 to somewhere north of 1.5 million today. Advocates have fought a number of laws that once restricted homeschooling, including those that mandated state control over curriculum or required homeschooling parents to obtain a teaching certificate. More than any other option in education, homeschooling represents an affirmation by “amateurs” that one of the most important tasks in life requires self-governance rather than reliance on the state.

Charter public schools represent a more recent attempt by parents to wrest control from the education establishment. They generally offer parents a more direct say than the traditional school district. Charter schools are freed from many of the state restraints imposed on districts, though this point varies from state to state. They aren’t able to levy taxes, and they’re usually smaller. As a result, they’re often more responsive to parental demand. Far from shunning parental involvement, most charter schools welcome it and some require it. Parents have responded. The first charter school was opened in 1992. Today, 2 million children attend a charter school, and 400,000 wait for a spot in schools that are bursting at the seams.

Parent trigger laws represent the latest model of self-governance. California passed the first one in 2010. Three other states have passed similar laws, and 20 have considered doing the same. It is far too soon to say whether these laws will be effective, but the idea is pure parental power: A majority of parents at a school can force—“trigger”—a change in the school’s management. Of course, school boards have always been able to do this. But the idea of a trigger law was nurtured by parents who felt powerless in the face of a school board.

Many teacher union officials, policy experts, and politicians still think that self-governance in education is unwise, claiming that parents can’t be trusted to know or do what is right. But there are signs that even some experts believe that more self-governance is valuable, or at least inevitable. Homeschooling is politically and legally safe. Charter schools find support in both major political parties.

When it published an article on parent trigger laws, TIME quoted the powerful member of Congress, Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), who said,

The fact of the matter is, when we look at developing a model for real change and improvement in public education, it’s pretty hard to do without parents. We’ve tried for years, and it’s not working.

Though the Great Society’s architect has long passed, the technocratic vision of governance is still powerful. (ObamaCare, anyone?) But as these examples from education demonstrate, the idea of self-governance endures.

John R. LaPlante as a senior fellow of the Free Market at the Center of the American Experiment and a contributor to