What Does Local Control In Education Look Like Anyway?

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By Desiree Mortenson

In January, interviews were held to fill a vacant seat on the School Board after Joy Schaeffer was appointed by the County Executive to fill a key position in Frederick Government.  Six applicants were selected for a televised interview and I listened in, impressed with the skills and experience that each applicant held and how they voiced their vision for education in Frederick County.  

While school board races are not partisan, voters at times align with certain views.  The liberal view of education has the reputation of rooting for “larger government, more State control!”  The mantra of conservatives champions “smaller government, more local control!”  I came to more fully understand the intricate differences between these two approaches after having just read a book by Dale Rusakoff called “The Prize.”  The book itself came into my hands as a winning prize of my own from the County library’s summer reading program.  From its pages, I was a spectator of sorts as the author asked the question: “Who’s In Charge of America’s Schools?”  The answer isn’t simple.

Rusakoff describes a fascinating attempt made ten years ago to accomplish a titanic sized effort to reform schools in urban America.  A collaborative effort between then Governor Chris Christie and then mayor of Newark Corey Booker as well as a 100 million dollar philanthropic pledge by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was put in play to solve the education crisis in New Jersey.  This bipartisan effort appeared to hold the promise of hope and progress for at-risk students.  Lofty plans were hatched to make sweeping, “bottom up” change in the Newark community whose schools weren’t succeeding.  Upon its success, such an effort to reform schools was to be replicated across the country. 

However, the entire approach to the Newark experiment turned out to be a heavily “top down” endeavor.  Driven by politicians who had limited knowledge of the local community, the schools, or the obstacles to reform.  A grassroots uprising brewed in response to such dramatic system-wide changes and student outcomes declined.  Clearly, the takeaway from the book is that political weight was intended to change “the system.”  The lesson learned was that the effort and money should have gone into the classrooms.  This is what local control of education looks like.  Zuckerburg took the lesson to heart and now focuses “on low-income communities… Individuals learning, working at the classroom level to develop support for students who struggle the most…working through parents, teachers, school leaders, and officials of both charters and school districts to understand the needs of students that others miss.” 

So, how does a Board of Education member implement local control while addressing county-wide needs?  I was especially captivated by April Miller’s answer when she was asked what her vision for education in Frederick County was.  Her words reflected what a “bottom up” approach might look like.   She spoke of “making community connections” and focusing on a “response to parents and student concerns.”   While part of the BOE, she had focused on children with special needs and their social/emotional needs “giving them coping skills” and “having licensed social workers to look at the whole child.”  She also cited the growth of high school opportunities at FCC’s Career and Technology center so that “kids have a way to cater and make education their own, to take ownership of that.”  

The Frederick County BOE has a 647 million dollar budget which is no small “prize” for our community.  Many of the current board members advocate for the Kirwan Commission that would come at the cost of $4 billion in State and County spending.  This plan is meant to address students in Maryland that are falling behind and, among other things, high schools in need of revamping.  I am left to wonder how “revamping” will play out in Frederick County.  Will such “top down” measures go smoothly?  Will voters welcome tax increases?  Fortunately, the Kirwan Commission clearly advocates for “bottom up” approaches too.   Community schools, for instance, are to have a combined focus on academics as well as health and social services, and community engagement with youth.  

So, whether conservatives like it or not, all indications suggest that Frederick County has already begun to put into place some of the Commission’s goals.   Despite its “top down” aspects, conservative voices can remind decision makers in our County not to lose sight of “bottom up” measures in the process.  In doing so, our kids learning outcomes will be better and so will their ability to make a lasting impact in the future.    

Desiree Mortenson works as a Home/Hospital teacher for FCPS.  She has served on a school community council and chaired committees for charter schools.  She has also worked as a case manager, consultant, mentor and volunteer in various human service positions.  She holds a Master’s in Public Administration from the University of Colorado in Denver.  Desiree and her husband live in Frederick with their five children.

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