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Kenneth Howe, (303) 492-7229,
Dan Quinn, (517) 203-2940,

New Report Cautions Against Federal Education Policies that Undermine Democracy and Local Control

EAST LANSING, Mich. (October 16, 2012)—While transmission of educational services happens at the local level, increasingly the power has shifted to state or national control. With the passage of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) the politics of education have been nationalized to an unprecedented degree. A new report out today concludes the concept of local control "has all but disappeared" in discussions of education policy.

The report, Democracy Left Behind: How Recent Education Reforms Undermine Local School Governance and Democratic Education, by Kenneth Howe and David Meens of the University of Colorado Boulder, examines the impact on democratic ideals of vanishing local control over education. The report examines the making of education policy as well as the decisions about what schools teach and how they teach it.

The authors review suggests that many contemporary reforms "run afoul of democratic principles in several critical ways."

While local discretion is allowed for how to comply with state and federal mandates, the constraints imposed by those mandates have been enormous. Consequently, Howe and Meens contend, NCLB and its progeny have been fundamentally anti-democratic. The same is true of the reform policies that have been advanced by President Obama and Education Secretary Duncan.

The authors warn that current reform approaches are marginalizing community involvement. "Democratic reform should involve local stakeholders, especially marginalized members of society, because inclusion is a democratic value that increases not only the likelihood that policies will be just, but also the likelihood that reform will succeed," Howe and Meens write. "Such inclusion also helps create the conditions in which all students can attain the democratic threshold."

They conclude with a series of recommendations, urging schools and education policymakers to take three key steps.

  • First, move away from a punitive model based on threats to withhold funding. This should be replaced by a participatory model – such as support and incentives for school employees, parents and community members to collaborate together on resolving educational problems.
  • Second, encourage states and local communities to adopt curriculum standards "that include a conscious and substantive focus on developing the deliberative skill and dispositions required of democratic citizenship."
  • Third, curtail the privatization of public education resources. Instead, build up democratic values by holding schools receiving public funds accountable to the public through democratically elected school boards and other democratic institutions.

Moreover, "If the future reauthorization of ESEA is to safeguard and strengthen democracy, it should make education for democracy a fundamental aim of public education."

Find Democracy Left Behind: How Recent Education Reforms Undermine Local School Governance and Democratic Education, by Kenneth Howe and David Meens, on the web at

The National Education Policy Center (NEPC), housed at the University of Colorado at Boulder School of Education, with funding from the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice, produced the policy brief.

The brief is also available on the National Education Policy Center website at:

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