Long before the Tea Party came on the scene, we Americans complained about big government. We noted its ever-growing costs, and the risks it poses for our civil liberties and true grassroots decision-making. Such complaints are not without their seeming contradictions. In the name of safety, we have built a massive military that consumes a significant portion of our taxes. Our fears have also led to support of a budget-busting local, state and federal correctional system that house more than 2 million people — a population swell that has been fueled largely by an expensive, big government War on Drugs.
Although much anti-big government rhetoric simply ignores these contradictions, one form of growing governmental intrusion has resulted in very little public opposition. It has to do with the ever expanding role of federal and state governments in our K-12 educational system. Looking back, America’s industrial and commercial might and cultural achievements all have their roots in locally financed and run K-12 schools. Those schools contributed to the U.S once having the world’s highest rates of college graduation. Today, we are no longer No. 1. The failure of public schools to prepare our children to manage an increasingly competitive world is an undeniable reality for which we now seek solutions. And, despite our dislike of big government, our response to this social problem, like others we face, is to seek solutions in bigger and more centralized administrative structures and policies.
With the George W. Bush administration came the federal No Child Left Behind initiative, which has been tweaked but fully embraced by Barack Obama. In support of that initiative’s goals and guidelines, state-level educational officials and/or city mayors have been given the authority to take over local schools or entire districts seen as financially distressed and/or “failing” in terms of their students’ educational progress. Here in Pine Bluff, this has recently become the fate of the Dollarway School District. While justified as necessary under federal and state educational guidelines and goals, that recent takeover basically usurps local control over the district. The sitting board was dismissed based on the assumption that it bore some responsibility for the district’s failures. The same cannot be said of the superintendent, Bettye Dunn-Wright, who had just been hired to help turn the district around, both financially and educationally. She was never given the chance to do the job now assigned to Frank Anthony. As in most states, a once passive state-level educational board has taken on new powers.
Government beyond the local levels clearly has a role in addressing educational failure, but that role cannot be limited mainly to the post-hoc takeover of “failed” schools. There is little evidence, for example, that mayor-appointed school officials in the nation’s big cities have succeeded in countering education-impeding structural problems such as residential segregation along race and class lines, unequal school funding streams, and the concentrated poverty found in inner city neighborhoods. There is also little reason to believe that state-appointed superintendents can do better than locally appointed superintendents in countering those same structural forces at work here in small-town and rural Arkansas. Turning our schools around will require much more than a changing of the administrative guard.
It appears that as long as local school and district takeovers involve kids and parents who are poor, they will be tolerated and met with silence. At the same time, because the reasons underlying takeovers center on educational underperformance, more affluent districts will seldom become candidates for takeovers because their schools are more successful. So goes the vicious, structural cycle that rotating school administrative chairs at the behest of big (ger)government will not fix.
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Darnell F. Hawkins received a doctorate in sociology from the University of Michigan and a law degree from the University of North Carolina. He currently lives in Pine Bluff after retiring from the University of Illinois at Chicago where he specialized in criminal justice.