Iowa is currently engaged in a contentious, but healthy, debate about how to improve its education system.  One central part of this debate is the appropriate balance of state control versus local control in decision making when it comes to our schools.  Some argue that the doctrine of local control, or having educational authority vested primarily or completely in the hands of local officials, is the best path forward for improving Iowa’s education system.

One hyper-active version of this philosophy even argues for the abolishment of the Iowa Department of Education so that a state presence is eliminated entirely.  This ideological trip-fantasia is being built on a constructed narrative that the relative decline of Iowa’s school system was actually caused by the creation of the Iowa Department of Education.  However, the facts simply do not support this assertion.  The Department was created in 1913 and was present during much of the expansion and years of success of Iowa’s education system.

Some might argue that my sticking up for the Department of Education is a self interested position.  Not so – if there was any evidence supporting the elimination of a state agency (or ministry of education in the case of an international system) was effective at improving student performance, I’d be advocating for that approach.  But there simply are no examples of high performing education systems that have used this approach and risen to greatness.  In every single case there is the presence of a strong state-wide vision and direction.

It’s not about me either because, put directly, I can find another job.  This should be about what policies we should pursue that will result in a better education for our students.

Our collective goal is for Iowa to have a school system on par with the highest performing education systems in the world.  Strong local control advocates would have us believe that we should take a sort of “laissez-faire” approach to educational decisions, where we should count on every one of our 348 school districts in the state to make the decisions and have the capacity to miraculously arrive at greatness.

Perhaps, at a surface level, this philosophy has some merit.   The local control approach relies on the notion that local school decision makers will make the best decisions on behalf of students and that the local district will internally have all the capacity necessary to deliver a world-class education.  Sometimes and on some issues, good decision making happens and sufficient organizational capacity does exist at the local level.  But, the evidence does not support a pure local control approach in practice.  An over-reliance on local control also leaves a lot of important aspects to chance at the local level.  Anyone who has actually been in some of those 348 school districts in Iowa can tell you the capacity for good decision making and for delivering uniformly high quality educational services is all across the board in terms of consistency.

Over-relying on a local control doctrine yields exactly what Iowa doesn’t need more of – variation and uneven results in terms of quality and student results.  Let me be more direct.  If Iowa designs its education policy featuring an over-emphasis on local control then the state has no chance of becoming a world-class school system and will instead have of pockets of both academic excellence and anemia … with a heavy dose of continued mediocrity.

To reinforce the point, there simply are no examples of high performing or fast accelerating education systems that rely on a pure local control approach in their ascent.

In fairness to this philosophy of local control, it would be equally foolish to put in place a system of tightly centralized and bureaucratically-driven state control.  This approach would squelch local innovation, overly standardize decisions that need to be customized to local contexts, and create responsiveness issues in addressing local problems.

Instead of setting up this false dichotomy of local control versus state control, what we should be trying to find is the right balance.

The state has an important role to play in setting high expectations for all students and making sure these standards are being met.  The state also serves an important role in making sure that all students are being provided equitable access to a quality education.  Finally, the state has a role to play in making sure this important goal of educating its citizens is appropriately resourced and that our schools are fair and honest stewards of tax dollars.  With that said, we should have a great deal of deference to the local level in making customized implementation decisions and operational decisions.

Our work must be to find the right mix and balance of state and local control in our schools that sets universally high expectations and universally bold strategies, but also allows for intelligent and flexible customization and problem solving to local contexts.  The 2010 McKinsey and Company study How the World’s Most Improved School Systems Keep Getting Better  got it right when talking about this balance.  Those authors said the responsibility of the state was to “prescribe adequacy, and unleash greatness.”

State and local leadership is necessary for our schools to improve at the pace and scale necessary for Iowa’s education system to reach its goal of being one of the best systems globally.  We need big changes and investments in education on the scale of the problems we face and that require a strategic, intentional, and purposeful direction for every school in Iowa.

The future of Iowa’s children is simply too important to be left to chance.