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Sachs Lecture 2: Stuart Wells Calls for a 'New Political Imagination'


In her second Sachs Lecture, which was held on October 30, Amy Stuart Wells, Professor of Educational Policy at UCLA, spoke to standing-room-only audience on "Local versus Community Control: Distinctions of Race, Class and Power."

Stuart Wells began, "In my first lecture I talked about historical and current resistance to the ideal of the 'common' school." In her second Sachs Lecture Stuart Wells said she wanted continue the theme of examining political resistance within education from different standpoints. "In doing this, I hope to further distinguish the goals and purposes of more privileged political participants in the educational system from those -- generally poor people and people of color -- who lack the political power to change that system"

She invited the audience, "to explore with me the social and political distinctions and symbolic meanings between two powerful phrases that have both historical and present-day significance to discussions about the governance and culture of public schools-local and community control of schools."

Stuart Wells pointed out that the term "local control" is tied historically to efforts by those who already have social, economic and political power and are therefore " resentful of the government's-especially the federal government's-infringement on their right to exercise that power."

Amy Stuart Wells


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Transcript of Lecture 1
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On the other hand, "any efforts to establish 'community control' of schools generally originate from people who had little power in the educational system-the poor and the disenfranchised."

"Historically," Stuart Wells continued, " community control efforts in education were linked to the black power movement and efforts by urban African-American parents and activists to have more say in how their neighborhood schools were run."

Stuart Wells argued, "some of the political and social distinctions between the objectives of the advocates of these two different forms of devolution remain with us today, although there have been some subtle shifts in their positions. Furthermore, what is perhaps most troubling today, is that these political distinctions are masked to a large degree by a popular reform agenda-namely the call for decentralization, deregulation, and privatization of public education. That is, at least on the surface, aligning African- American activists with more conservative advocates of 'local control.'"

She then said with some pause, "I want to suggest that if we continue down the current path in terms of how we structure decentralizing public policies that the goals of local control advocates will be served, while the goals of the community control advocates may well be ignored."

Stuart Wells added, while the apparent popularity of decentralization and "New Federalism" would restore greater local control in education -- be it block grants, dismantling, court orders or school choice - it "is to a large extent, a long-awaited backlash against…[federal]government intervention. Many working-class and wealthy Americans have become increasingly critical of the cost of federal policies and programs designed to create greater equality. Many do not want to pay taxes to support services for other people's children, and thus they shun the government's redistributive role."

In this more recent struggle for local control, Stuart Wells said, "what is 'local' has become socially constructed to fit the context of more privileged people resisting the redistribution of opportunities. Thus, while historically local control was about giving local school districts and state legislators more control over the schools, now local control is about giving privileged parents and their advocates control at the level that is most helpful to them."

"In other words," Stuart Wells said, "what is 'local' in the rhetoric of local control seems adjustable to serve the purposes of those who want to eliminate policies designed to redistribute opportunities."

"Thus, the political agenda of local control extends well beyond efforts to shift federal funding for education into block grants," said Stuart Wells. It is grounded in various political attitudes, "especially the backlash against government-enforced civil rights laws. Meanwhile, the demand for community control has also come from the political left, as racial and ethnic minority groups have struggled for greater freedom from oppressive state-run institutions."

While reviewing the historical context of recent demonstrations of community control, Stuart Wells said, " I would argue that neither historically nor today, the push for greater community control is not or does not need to be solely an anti-state political movement. . . Community control efforts among African Americans in the 1960s were taking place parallel to the Civil Rights Movement that relied heavily on the federal government and the U.S. constitution for enforcement of basic rights. Furthermore, we know that one of the most successful and enduring War on Poverty programs has been Head Start, which relied on a strong federal presence to bypass state and local power structures and channel money, jobs and pre-school opportunities into poor communities."

"In the end," Stuart Wells said, "what those of us who care about both empowerment and community control and issues of social justice in education might be seeking is a variation of "fragmented centralization" of the 60s that [David] Tyack described. Such a new political possibility would call on the federal government to play a powerful role in redistributing educational resources and opportunities to those who have the least while allowing local communities-particularly those that have been the least well served in the public educational system-to have more control over how those resources are spent and what students are taught."

Stuart Wells closed with, "Indeed, a new political imagination is needed -- one that draws on the historical distinctions between local and community control in ways that lead us toward a more socially just educational system."

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