This morning we had a story in the paper by Lynn Bonner about Senate Majority Leader Phil Berger's plan to overhaul K-12 education. It occured to me that many folks might wonder why a state senator is involved in figuring out how to make sure kids are reading at grade level, and whether they should get promoted or, as we used to say, left back.
The fact is that public education has many masters, from the state legislature, to the State Board of Education and the state superintendent of public instruction. Don't forget the federal Department of Education, which sees the instruction of youngsters as crucial to our global economic and military competitiveness, and thus sees local education as a matter for Washington. Somewhere in there are the local school boards and superindentents. These are the folks that most citizens at the local level hold accountable for the performance of their kids' schools, but as you can see, it's not that simple.
The General Assembly got very involved in setting education policy during the Great Depression, when many localities were flat broke and unable to pay for decent schools. Today, the state pays for 60 percent of education spending. Public school spending makes up 40 percent of the state budget. So according to the Golden Rule ("He who has the gold, makes the rules"), the legislature feels entitled to get deep into how schools are run because it sends $7.4 billion to the districts annually. So you had the legislature last year getting into how many teacher assistants schools should have.
There are some who believe that K-12 education would be better off if all decisions were made at the local level, along with the mechanisms for funding them. Every school district would be free to experiment with their own curricula. They could test or not test, decide how many days kids should be in school, and set their own requirements for teacher credentials. Heck, they could decide whether or not they wanted to have public schools, or just let the private sector provide.
To do that, there would have to be a fundamental shift in public finance. The states would have to give back a big chunk of their taxing power - i.e., the income tax and sales tax - because the locals would need more than property taxes to pick up the slack.
It sure would be interesting. A certain amount of the current system involves sending tax dollars to Raleigh and Washington where bureaucrats and politicians then redistribute them back down to the counties without, it could be argued, adding a significant amount of value in the process, but certainly adding a lot of rules and regulations about how the classroom teacher should teach.
It is entirely understandable that Phil Berger feels an obligation to get deeply involved in how the classrooms should operate and casts a skeptical eye on the way education has been run so far, because, for now, he and his colleagues in the legislature are having to pick up most of the tab. Maybe it would be a good idea to revisit this 80-year-old system, but until that happens, you're going to have the legislature as a super school board.