Will a renewed national emphasis on education ultimately undermine the traditional local control of schools in the United States?
For a couple of years, the president and the National Association of Governors have been pressing for reforms. They've been proposing goals, and that raises questions of how these goals will be implemented throughout the country.The national objectives are admittedly broad, and there is plenty of room for debate as to how they can be achieved. And most everyone appears to agree that in the end, change will have to occur at the school level.
However, a couple of things seem to be occurring that could affect local control. How much of the change might be imposed on schools, rather than implemented individually as a matter of choice and style, is a question.
One of the hot topics of the day in education circles is testing. The president has called for a national test, and now the debate is heavy among the "experts" to determine how, when, and on what topics students should be tested - if a national test is a good idea at all.
Such a test could apply pressures on states and local districts to conform to a national curriculum.
Some degree of latitude in selecting curricula has been one of the parameters of local choice and one of the factors that allows flexibility at the school level.
Utah has a well-developed core program that is being applied by most districts statewide. Even within the core, districts have room for choice.
A national curriculum agenda might or might not be as well developed. It might or might not meet the needs and desires of Utah's educational leadership.
A second factor that appears inevitable is an increase in federal funding for education. The U.S. Senate is now recommending a $3.1 billion increase for education, the House $2.4 billion.
There could be plenty of competition among the states for every cent of the increase.
Just one for-instance. The president's goals call for the "preparation of every child for school." That could be interpreted to mean a broad range of programs, including universal early childhood education. Already, influential congressmen, like Ted Kennedy, are calling for the expansion of Head Start-type programs to include all children.
That's expensive talk. In states like Utah, which struggle to educate children in grades kindergarten through 12, the implication is an additional burden of one or possibly two years.
The federal money would be a necessity to carry through an early childhood program, unless Utah could come up with the money or were willing to dilute the present K-12 programs to spread the funding even further.
Past experience holds that federal money has federal strings. How tightly knotted those strings might be is anyone's guess at this point.
How the national reform effort will fall out isn't by any means clear to anyone, even the experts, at this juncture.
But the implication is there - state and local control of education could be eroded in the name of national improvement.
It will be a fascinating process to watch.