“Local Control” – Absolute or Absolut?


Recently, WhoSaidYouSaid showed Colorado state Rep. John Soper, D-Thornton, telling public school employees to “go someplace else” if they didn’t like being due-paying members of the Colorado Education Association. Soper was speaking in opposition to HB12-1333, a bill that would have permitted teachers to opt out of union membership any time, with a 30-day notice.

The Democrats’ opposition, as you can see from our distilled video above, was largely based on the idea of local control of schools, enshrined in the Colorado state constitution. The repetition of the phrase by Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Summit, and Rep. Judy Solano, D-Brighton, struck me as a drinking game.

The problem is that “local control,” while it does extend beyond curriculum, is not absolute. According to the Colorado Department of Education, “local control” encompasses:

“Both by citizen preference and law, Colorado is a ‘local control’ state. This means that many pre-kindergarten through 12th grade public education decisions – on issues such as curriculum, personnel, school calendars, graduation requirements, and classroom policy – are made by the 176 school district administrations and their school boards.”

Local control would, according to the categories listed above, include things that actually affect the relationship among teachers, schools, parents, and children, but doesn’t seem to include the internal relationship between the teachers and their union.

In practice, according to David Kopel, research director for the Independence Institute, Colorado case law limits exclusive local control more than this definition – and Reps. Solano’s and Hamner’s insistence – would presume.

The state legislature can set ground rules for teacher dismissals. (Blaine v. Moffat County School Dist. Re No. 1, 1988, 748 P.2d 1280.)

Therefore, sect. 15 does not grant school districts absolutely immunity from legislative regulation of employee relations.

“For purposes of state constitutional provision giving ‘control of instruction’ to local school boards, local board discretion can be restricted or limited, where specific local board decisions are likely to implicate important education policy, by statutory criteria, judicial review, or both.” (Board of Educ. of School Dist. No. 1 in City and County of Denver v. Booth, 1999, 984 P.2d 639.)

As for Rep. Solano’s somewhat snarky assertion that, “If you’re for local control for one thing, it’s very difficult to be against local control for something else,” historically, that’s been far from true for either party. Insistent on local control in this case, the Democrats have, in the past, overridden it to press for Race to the Top funds, establish an arts curriculum requirement, and set sex education standards.

However, what has been true is that the left has been all too willing to use the facade of “local control” as an excuse to stifle reforms both large – as in the statewide school choice program struck down by the courts – and small, as in this case of letting teachers escape unwanted union membership, when they see them as a threat to the entrenched power of the teachers’ union.