President Donald Trump’s executive order issued Wednesday bears striking similarities to the philosophy of local control espoused by Gov. Jerry Brown throughout his governorship, and is at the heart of landmark legislation adopted by the California Legislature nearly four years ago.
What makes the similarities especially notable is that this is one of the few areas where there seems to be some congruency between Trump’s policies and those in place in California. On most other issues – from immigration to climate change – the Trump administration and California’s political leadership are starkly at odds.
“The executive order I’m signing today is another critical step to restoring local control,” Trump said at a signing ceremony at the White House Wednesday.
“For too long, the federal government has imposed its will on state and local governments,” he said. “The result has been education that spends more and achieves far, far, far less. My administration has been working to reverse this federal power grab and give power back to families, cities, states, give power back to localities.”
Compare that to the remarks Brown made on July 1, 2013 in Sacramento in signing the landmark “Local Control Funding Formula” legislation, which he championed.
“I’m signing a bill that is truly revolutionary,” he said. “We are bringing government closer to the people, to the classroom where real decisions are made and directing the money where the need and the challenge is greatest. This is a good day for California, it’s a good day for school kids, and it’s a good day for our future.”
Last year in reviewing his education accomplishments in his State of the State speech, Brown said, “I am proud of how California has led the country in the way it is returning control to local school districts.”
In a harsh critique of the No Child Left Behind Law signed by President George W. Bush in 2002, Brown said, “in the last two decades, there has been a national movement to micromanage teachers from afar, through increasingly minute and prescriptive state and federal regulations. California successfully fought that movement and has now changed its overly intrusive, test-heavy state control to a true system of local accountability.”
A big difference between Trump’s vision of “local control” and Brown’s is that Trump has provided no details as to what local control means, and how or whether local school districts will be held accountable for results.
Brown, on the other hand, has been able to translate his views on local control, rooted in the theological concept of “subsidiarity,” into a funding and accountability system that requires school districts to draw up a Local Control and Accountability Plan showing how they will spend state funds to meet goals they set up based on a series of indicators.
While some advocates say that the accountability measures are not rigorous enough, California’s plan is consistent with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which calls for holding districts accountable on multiple measures, and not just test scores.
It is impossible to predict how Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and officials at the U.S. Department of Education will interpret and enforce the provisions of the executive order. But on its face, it appears that it should have little direct impact on California.
The order does not propose any new federal legislation, but rather calls for affirming existing federal legislation that education is a local or state responsibility, along with endorsing the provisions of the Every Student Succeeds Act, approved in a bipartisan vote by Congress and signed into law by President Barack Obama in December 2015.
It is also unclear how the order would impact other states since they already are required to follow the provisions of the Every Student Succeeds Act.
The first paragraph reads as follows:
It shall be the policy of the executive branch to protect and preserve State and local control over the curriculum, program of instruction, administration, and personnel of educational institutions, schools, and school systems, consistent with applicable law, including the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, as amended by the Every Student Succeeds Act, and ESEA’s restrictions related to the Common Core State Standards developed under the Common Core State Standards Initiative.
Both Trump and DeVos have advocated giving parents greater “school choice,” including providing taxpayer support to underwrite private school tuition. This was Trump’s central education pledge during his presidential campaign, and DeVos’ passion for decades before that.
But the executive order makes no reference at all to “school choice” or to private school vouchers. Nor did Trump or DeVos use those words in their remarks at the signing ceremony. DeVos did make a veiled reference to school choice by saying “we can’t have a cookie-cutter approach to education,” and that “each state, and each school, have different challenges, and each individual student has unique needs.”
“Our solutions should be as varied as the students we serve,” she said. “The Every Student Succeeds Act was a good step in this direction, giving flexibility to states to best meet the needs of their communities.”
It is likely that at some point DeVos and Trump will put forward a “school choice” plan that will be fiercely resisted by many in California. But on the matter of “local control” of schools, California and Washington are, for now, on common ground.