Localism and Trust in Schools
Our nation's schools are emerging from the pandemic years facing not only profound learning loss in students, but a political environment characterized by mistrust and anxiety about the focus of education and the proper balance between professional prerogatives and family values.
The discord between parents and schools that we have witnessed in recent years can be traced to the ongoing movement away from local control and toward stronger state and federal involvement in K-12 education. A robust debate is underway, but the continued embrace of national and state-level policy responses will only further damage the critical local relationships and pluralism that are so necessary for schools in all of the different sectors — public, charter, private, and religious — to succeed.
If the contest over the future of American elementary and secondary education is waged as a strictly partisan battle at the state and federal levels with the object of bringing the other side into submission, the well-being of our students and, indeed, schooling itself, will continue to suffer. A humbler, more localized conversation about school governance — one that respects the natural divergence of family values and opinions and weighs them against core public and civic values — would be more likely to allow educators to do their jobs well and enable parents to feel confident in supporting their efforts.
To bring about such a dialogue, parents, teachers, school officials, and lawmakers alike will have to rebuild a crucial component of any relationship: trust.
THE CURRENT DIVIDE
For more than 65 years, public education has been a central part of America's efforts to alleviate gaps in wages, wealth, and other indicators of socioeconomic well-being, especially among Americans of different races. In the early 2000s, these efforts took the form of standards and accountability, with education reformers leading the charge from Washington.
The reforms varied by administration, but they included No Child Left Behind, which required states to administer standardized tests to students in grades three through eight; Race to the Top, which gave schools incentives to adopt common policies, teacher evaluations, and educational standards; and efforts by the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights to uncover and remedy examples of state and local policies having a disparate impact on racial minorities. Remarkably, in an era of mounting partisan tensions, several of these measures garnered bipartisan support.
Unfortunately, as Chester Finn and Frederick Hess chronicled in these pages, the extraordinary efforts of Washington policymakers delivered modest results. Test scores rose slightly during the George W. Bush administration, only to hit a plateau during the Obama administration. In the years that followed, the bipartisan consensus frayed, with right-leaning reformers devoting most of their attention to school choice while many on the left began to characterize the very concepts of standards and accountability as emblematic of the nation's systemic racism.
These latter views became ascendant among the education establishment in the years immediately preceding the Covid-19 pandemic. Urban districts and some large countywide school districts, riding the tide of anti-racism swept into the nation's collective consciousness by academics, major donors, activists, and media outlets, enacted policies and programs that pitted groups of parents against one another.
Some of these districts sought to broaden admission to academically selective schools by moving away from single test-score or GPA admissions screens. Districts also considered policies limiting access to higher-level mathematics in certain grades to mute achievement differences among racial groups. Other schools went much further, moving beyond the teaching of America's fraught history with race and equality to trying to "remediate" staff and rid students of their inherent prejudice and culpability in the nation's systemically racist institutions. In the eyes of these educators, the role of public schools is to ensure that children's future choices and values are not constrained by their parents' benighted worldviews.
This vision, with its strong dose of condescension, was untenable in a free, self-governing, pluralistic democracy. To be sure, a racial-justice-oriented curriculum might appeal to some parents if it were offered to them as an option. But when imposed on families from above without an attempt to gather feedback or encourage buy-in, friction is almost inevitable.
When the pandemic hit, remote schooling became the norm for thousands of public schools. Lessons that had once been taught behind closed doors were broadcast into kitchens and living rooms across the country. And many parents who were once predisposed to trust their local public schools and teachers did not like what they saw. While statisticians are still tallying the impact of the shutdowns on public-school enrollment, there is growing evidence that a significant number of families exercised school-choice options in response to the perceived lack of service from their public schools.
At the same time, parents who had no other options began demanding some control over what their children were taught in public schools. Prominent voices on the other side responded by arguing that the nation's past wrongs and continuing socioeconomic disparities constitute a public issue that schools are obliged to address forcefully, regardless of parental discomfort. Tensions came to a head during the Virginia gubernatorial race in 2021, when Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe told a debate audience, "I don't think parents should be telling schools what they should teach." Many observers trace his loss on Election Day to this statement and the backlash that ensued.
Today, the hot-button issue is the desire of education officials in Washington to substitute their judgment for that of parents and local school boards in decisions about the classification of transgender youngsters in scholastic sports, along with parents' right to know if their child is secretly transitioning at school. Parents who question whether it is age-appropriate to have discussions on gender fluidity in elementary schools are painted as transphobic bigots, while middle- and high-school educators who respond to the complex issues of adolescence in the 21st century are labeled "groomers" or worse.
Bigots and groomers certainly exist, but the nationalization of the debate through traditional and social media has caused people to attribute these sins to all parents or all educators. The Biden administration's partnering with the FBI to investigate unruly parents disrupting school-board meetings represents one example. Fox News' touting a finding that nearly 350 public educators in grades K-12 were arrested for child sex-related crimes last year is another.
To be sure, no parent should use violence to express discontent with school-board policies, and no adult should ever approach a child sexually. But the percentage of violators in these cases is small. Unfortunately, that fact matters little to cultural warriors, who always use the broadest generalization of the problem to justify the most broadly applicable response. More people may assume jobs as monitors or inspectors as a result, but it comes at the cost of rapid dissolution of trust in schools, educators, and parents.
Current controversies over curricular content and school choice have thrown into stark relief a core question: What is the purpose of public education? Divergent answers to this question underlie the current battles over anti-racism curricula, gender policies, social-and-emotional learning programs, and more. They inform calls for schools to remove certain books from school libraries and classrooms. They push parents to demand the right to know beforehand what is being taught or assigned to their children in schools.
In an article for City Journal, education scholar Samantha Hedges offered four possible answers to the question of public education's purpose. These include social mobility, or "preparation for higher social positions"; social efficiency, or "preparation for the workforce"; civic education, or "preparation for self-governance in a democratic society"; and social justice — "emancipation of the oppressed."
In our vast pluralistic society, individuals and communities will naturally differ in their preferences among these competing options. Many parents hope to see schools prepare their children for gainful employment and socioeconomic advancement in adulthood. Others prefer that schools emphasize the civic side of education — Hedges herself argues that civic education is the most important of the four "because it subsumes the other three purposes, satisfying both the private and public function of schools and the various stakeholders of public education." Still others see schools as vehicles for righting the nation's historical wrongs and promoting equal outcomes among various groups of students.
The question of education's purpose is universal and timeless, but in the past, it was addressed by locally elected school boards. Outside of large cities, the design of the American public education system allowed community members to deliberate over the issue with one another. The higher levels of government, including state education departments and federal courts, stepped in only when evidence suggested that local decision-making had denied some students their constitutionally protected rights.
Perhaps the most prominent example occurred in the wake of the 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. Although the decision deemed state-sanctioned school segregation unconstitutional, addressing segregation in practice required more than simply changing the law.
Thus, during the 20-year period spanning from Brown to 1974's Milliken v. Bradley (which limited desegregation orders that crossed district boundaries), federal courts directed the desegregation of local school districts. These efforts were driven by laudable motives, and they targeted widespread injustices that needed correcting. However, they also gave the federal government a toehold in the domain of public education.
Around the same time federal courts were desegregating schools, the federal legislative and executive branches entered the public-education arena with the launch of President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. Major pieces of legislation passed during the era sought to meet the "special educational needs" of children from low-income families and to address "the impact that concentrations of low-income families have on the ability of local educational agencies to support adequate educational programs." Examples included Head Start (1965); the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, or ESEA (1965); and the Bilingual Education Act (1968). Perhaps the most significant of these was Title I of the ESEA — the first broad federal-funding stream for public elementary and secondary education.
Even as more school-district funding flowed from Washington, the power to set the goals, standards, and missions of schools still resided in state capitals. Then, during the Clinton administration, federal officials began meddling in these affairs, too. As Chester Finn and Michael Petrilli recounted in a 1998 piece for The Public Interest:
Since inauguration day, 1993, the Clinton administration alone has embraced dozens of novel education schemes, including subsidies for state academic standards, tax credits for school construction, paying for teachers to be appraised by a national standards board, hiring 100,000 new teachers to shrink class size, ensuring "equity" in textbooks, collecting gender-sensitive data on the pay of high-school coaches, boosting the self-esteem of rural students, establishing a Native Hawaiian Education Council, connecting every classroom to the Internet, developing before- and after-school programs, forging mentoring relationships between college students and middle schoolers, increasing the number of school drug-prevention counselors, requiring school uniforms, and fostering character education.
This trend only accelerated during the George W. Bush and Obama presidencies with initiatives like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. Today, the federal government routinely attempts to impose the one-size-fits-all values of Washington, D.C., on school districts across the country, while national fads like anti-racism, gender ideology, and social-and-emotional learning increasingly seep into local school policies and curricula.
The dual trends of education becoming a more national issue and conflicts over educational philosophy deepening have combined to produce a volatile climate surrounding debates over public schooling. Contemporary showdowns over educational content and practice reflect unease with decisions made in some local school districts to implement curricular and training programs that serve national, as opposed to local, needs and preferences. This growing discontent is having dire consequences for our public-school system, particularly in the area of trust.
THE NEED FOR TRUST
Effective schooling in all sectors, whether public, private, or charter, requires reaching a threshold of trust between parents and educators. When parents send their children off to school in the morning, they need to know that the educators staffing the school have the best interests of their children in mind, and that those professionals have a common sense of mission that is compatible with their aspirations for their children. At the same time, educators need some degree of moral authority within their schools. They must be able to enforce discipline gently but firmly. In doing so, they need parents to emphasize to their children that teachers are there to help them and that they should be respected and heeded.
This is not mere conjecture; solid, multi-year empirical research in Chicago's public elementary schools in the 1990s concluded that "relational trust" — which the authors describe as an "interrelated set of mutual dependencies...embedded within the social exchanges in any school community" — is the "connective tissue that binds individuals together to advance the education and welfare of students." Relational trust is grounded in respectful social exchanges between stakeholders, which "are marked by genuinely listening to what each person has to say and by taking these views into account in subsequent actions." "Even when people disagree," the authors point out, "individuals can still feel valued if others respect their opinions."
Parents or community members who storm school-board meetings because of something they learned on social media are not demonstrating that kind of respect. Neither are school or district administrators who decide, without engaging with parents or other members of the community, that certain topics should be inserted into school curricula without parents' knowledge or consent.
Many educators appear to understand the need for partnership with parents. A 2021 Education Week survey found that 63% of teachers, district leaders, and school leaders believe that parents should be "somewhat or very involved" in the selection of curricula and materials. At the same time, only 31% reported that they believed parents were involved in these decisions. It's not clear if this means educators want parents involved to the extent they agree with experts or if they recognize that ignoring parents is not a viable approach, but it does provide some hope of the two sides finding common ground.
OPPORTUNITIES FOR REFORM
When communal trust breaks down, it's usually due to the actions of multiple actors. The breakdown of trust in public schools is no different. The solution, therefore, will require each party in the dispute to acknowledge the role it has played in the problem and to pursue reconciliation and reform.
For their part, federal policymakers need to reconsider their role in the educational enterprise. In 2018, Title I's annual funding stood at $15.8 billion. Yet after more than 50 years of such funding, educational gaps still exist, and few argue that Title I is improving educational outcomes. Instead, it has become the stick by which federal officials influence local school decision-making. To promote educational pluralism, lawmakers should turn Title I funding into an educational tax credit through which families can access a range of educational services, including private and religious schools as well as augmented services in local public schools.
Throughout the last 30 years, state education officials have changed their approach from one of broad oversight of local school boards to more targeted regulation of school policies. These officials set state standards, administer tests to measure compliance with those standards, and intervene when schools fail to meet standards, diverting the attention of local school boards and superintendents away from their students and communities and toward the state capital.
At the same time, some responses to educational overreach from state legislators and governors make them appear indifferent to the fact that local school-board elections are the proper place to sort out these issues. Imposing limits on curricula or requiring extreme transparency about what goes on in schools sends a clear message to educators: We do not trust you, and therefore we want to limit your prerogatives.
State officials need to move away from imposing mandates and sanctions and toward ensuring that democratic self-government can function with regard to public education. This means limiting state-level mandates to those necessary for promoting students' health and safety, and reforming school-board election processes in ways that increase participation. Moving school-board elections to the same date as general elections would be a step in the right direction, as would curbing the influence of self-interested parties in those elections. State education departments might also take on the task of training or otherwise encouraging school boards to return to their original role as facilitators of dialogue between professional educators and members of the community.
At the local level, school officials and parents should be able to come to an agreement on what should be taught in public schools. The process of negotiating these agreements cannot and should not be dictated from above, because resolving differences requires listening and learning on the part of both parents and educators. The federal government is too distant from schools for such an endeavor: It reduces everyone to a category and makes broad assumptions about their needs and desires, rather than truly engaging with them. At their best, schools do the opposite, relating to families and communities in tangible ways characterized by mutual trust and a willingness not only to preach, but to learn.
The emergence of public education as an electoral wedge issue is creating an environment of distrust and fear on both sides, making workable relationships of trust in individual schools ever more difficult. Those fighting against what they perceive as anti-American, anti-white, or anti-Asian bias in schools need to resist the temptation to nationalize every incident through social and traditional media. Instead, school boards and other local democratic bodies should provide the setting for mediation between parents and school officials in pursuit of agreement.
At the same time, parents and community members who are concerned about educational content or practices in their local schools should be mindful that some school professionals may share their concerns. Painting all educators with a broad brush rather than seeking supporters inside the schools is not conducive to achieving necessary reforms. Administrators too — particularly school-board members — should avoid implementing procedures designed to limit the input of parents, and they should demonstrate authentic willingness to listen to the community's concerns.
For their part, educators need to leaven their professional zeal to do what they think is right with the knowledge that parents choose to send their child to a particular school. They need to understand that when they push too far afield from their community's comfort zone, lead children in exercises that parents either do not understand or do not deem appropriate for school, or ignore situations that place students in physical or emotional danger, parents will take their children elsewhere. Meanwhile, parents need to be mindful of the fact that, by and large, educators are well-intentioned professionals who are trying to prepare children for their future lives as adults.
Parents should not be able to tell schools what to teach, but schools should not be able to tell parents what their children should learn; decision-making in our republican democracy cannot be unilateral. Rather, both sides must work together to maintain the degree of trust necessary for our public-education enterprise to work.
Finally, even a well-intentioned and well-administered consensus-building effort will not please everyone. School choice, supported by public funding, should offer an exit option for parents who cannot abide by the accommodations devised by the will of the local majority. With this in mind, states should do all they can under recent Supreme Court rulings to foster and expand school choice, including allowing for the unlimited growth of charter schools and lending public support to private and religious schools.
Both parents and teachers need to recognize that our country needs, and will always need, a robust public-school system staffed by competent educators who recognize parents as partners rather than obstacles to their agenda. Reflecting our country's commitment to participatory democracy, our public schools should be governed locally by school boards that consciously mediate public conversations among educators, parents, and community members so that they can come to agreements on contentious issues.
Of course, there will always be issues on which some parents and some educators cannot agree, and that preclude their participation in a program or policy forged based on a larger consensus. For that reason, our educational system needs to be an open one — one in which those with strongly held beliefs can send their children to schools that respect those beliefs while also grounding students in the community's civic culture. Our school systems should not be hostile to Americans' personal freedom to follow their conscience; instead, they should welcome expanded school choice involving institutions that provide the same benefits to their students that public schools provide to theirs.
Policy advocates on both the left and right have proven too willing to engage in a winner-take-all culture war over schools. If political leaders do not reform school policies, practices, and curricula in ways that align with community and civic values, they will lose parents' trust, and with it, our nation's core system of education.