Local Illusions

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If there is one thing virtually all American school reformers of every stripe agree upon, it is the sanctity of local control of the public schools. From conservative voucher advocates to the most liberal proponents of progressive education, the reformers praise local control for ensuring responsiveness, flexibility, and accountability. Parents everywhere are convinced that local school districts give them a measure of control over the quality of their children's education, while the tax-sensitive take comfort in the notion that local control assures scrupulous oversight of their tax money. In a society beset by disaffection from political institutions, the local school district enjoys a reputation as an idyll of grassroots democracy.

Twenty-three years ago, when I arrived in the United States as an Italian postdoctoral fellow in physics, I scarcely expected to experience that so-called idyll, much less to serve on a local school board. At first, I became interested in the question of why women and minorities were so badly under-represented in the ranks of American science--more so than in Italy or Brazil or any number of other countries. It was hard not to conclude that the absence of a standard curriculum requiring sustained exposure to math and science--the kind of curriculum other countries have--was largely to blame.  

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About the Author

Chiara R. Nappi is a theoretical physicist at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. She served on the Board of Education of Princeton Regional Schools from 1993 to 1996.

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