By Matthew Clay, PhD
It is odd that it is sometimes more difficult to watch a loved one process bad news than to accept it yourself. However, I had that exact experience as I watched my wife, a special education teacher, count the votes to see that our State Board of Education rejected the Governor’s executive order delaying the start of school and push the decision of what school will look like this fall to the local level. There of course was the same fear and anxiety all teachers and parents are experiencing related to school this fall. For me though, there was anger. It was not specifically anger at a governmental decision with which I disagreed, but rather it was anger at watching politicians, pundits, and half of the board of education use the very imagery of the type of community I call home to argue for local control which is ultimately harmful to those communities.
The local control argument is not new. It has its own history that is well worth considering. Campbell Scribner offers an excellent look at this history in The Fight for Local Control: Schools, Suburbs, and American Democracy. Rather than focus on this history, or even how current politics utilizes the argument for local control, I instead wish to deal with how this decision plays out in rural communities. This is particularly relevant as the local control argument tends to rely on rural imagery. This is perhaps best exemplified in Betsy DeVos’s ‘guns for grizzly bears’ argument. Although certainly not the only area in which the local control argument has been used, I believe the Covid-19 Pandemic in particular offers an incredible example to understand how local control plays out at the ground level for rural communities.
Ultimately the shortcomings of the local control argument in rural communities arise from a misunderstanding of the nature of and value of relationships in rural communities. In an era of difficult decision making, school leaders will obviously have to make decisions that could potentially be unpopular. However, the nature of intertwined relationships in rural communities means that school leaders in these communities will not just be making these decisions in their official capacity, but they will be making those decisions as an individual. Whereas an administrator in an urban district might receive complaints about decisions to their office, rural administrators will receive those complaints at the grocery store, post office, and church. Rural administrators will not be perceived as opposing an idea in their decision making, they will be perceived as opposing individuals. Not only will they be perceived as opposing individuals, those individuals could be their literal neighbors or even family members. Moreover, administrators lose the ability to hide behind anonymity of perspectives being offered. It might be possible for administrators in urban districts to hide behind the illusion that their decision was based on hearing differing perspectives from teachers. However, when the entire faculty is on a single group chat that opportunity for anonymity disappears. The point is that local school leaders will pay a higher social cost than would state or federal level decision makers. A rural administrator will not be perceived as having not listened to some parents’ or teachers’ opinions, they will be perceived as having not listened to parents or teachers: full stop.
The continuation of the harmful impacts of local control on rural communities is that local decisions place strain on community relationships. Relationships are the currency of rural schools. Although any school wishes for positive relationships between teachers, students, and parents, in rural communities these relationships extend well beyond the school building and are often generational. In many cases, these relationships are essential to the function of the school. This can include business owners that fund school activities, landowners that allow the school to access their property for school events, and community members who volunteer directly in the school. In rural schools, relationships are not just a desirable goal; they are the lifeblood.
There could be the temptation to dismiss my concerns by saying that how schools move forward in response to Covid-19 is contentious everywhere and so it is of course so in rural communities. In fairness rural communities are certainly suspect to the same partisan politics of their metropolitan counterparts. However, when decisions are made at the state and federal level, rural school leaders are allowed to face the same decision while charting a course forward that brings the community together, rather than tearing it apart. Local control forces schools to start moving from a place of division as teachers and parents make voices heard and some of those voices are not represented in the decision. A state or federal level decision allows schools to move forward from a place of unity, even if it is unity in a dislike of the decision.
I do wish to offer an alternative along with my criticism of local choice. Rather than local choice where state and federal policymakers abdicate their responsibilities, I would like to suggest that we pursue local voice. When the Kansas State Board of Education argued that decisions would be made by local schools they essentially indicated they are aware that certain voices are not given space at the state level. If that was the perception, it was not wrong. Of the ten members of the board, only two are from counties classified as rural by the Kansas Department of Health Environment, none are from counties classified as frontier, the lowest population density classification in the state. This is despite the fact that 37 of the 105 counties in the state fall under this category. Half of the state board comes from a total of just three counties.
The need for rural voices in policymaking, especially in states like Kansas, is critical. For rural communities, being used as a trope for the sake of policymaking does not equate to actually having a voice. Rural educators must engage with policymakers and do whatever we can to make our voices heard. We also need urban educators, who may have their voices represented, to look for who is not at the table in policymaking. We must take rural communities from theoretical to tangible, with real teachers, actual students, and voices that must be heard.
Matthew Clay has spent the past nine years as a secondary science teacher, primarily in rural Western Kansas. He recently completed his Doctorate of Education from the University of Northern Colorado and is starting this fall as a faculty member in the Department of Teacher Education at Fort Hays State University. He lives in Dighton, Kansas with his wife and two sons.