“Local Control” Politics

An earlier blog talked about “code” in political speak, and several incidents that have come to my attention recently caused me to think about one particular form of “code” that’s always been a part of American politics, but is now making a resurgence, particularly with the more right-wing elements – although it’s certainly not absent from the far left, either.

That’s the specter of “local control.”

For years, “local control” was used as both a justification and a means for maintaining segregation of elementary and secondary schools across the country.  Today, combined with “states’ rights,” it’s become a rallying cry for those who dislike federal laws and mandates that are contrary to local practices. Western states who would rather fund their governments through mineral severance taxes claim that federal environmental laws and land use regulations restrict the use of “their lands” and demand greater local control.  “No Child Left Behind” regulations are cited as an example of infringement on local rights. Religious organizations that wish to deny employees health insurance that covers birth control manifest another form of local control. The government or the state isn’t mandating birth control;  it’s mandating the opportunity, and it’s up to the individual as to whether that opportunity is used.

And all too often, the push for local control is both a hypocritical protest against federal actions, often those designed to increase personal freedoms, and an attempt to restrict those freedoms. For example, here in Utah, the governor and state legislators rail against federal control, but they attempt various ways to curtail the sale of liquor, to mandate the longest waiting periods for women to have abortions, to require mandatory marriage counseling before allowing divorce proceedings to be filed, to allow local school districts to opt out of providing sex education classes, and to restrict the distribution of federal funds for programs they dislike.  Right wing legislators demand that people have the right to bear arms, even though weapons kill tens of thousands of people, while railing against abortion and contraception on the grounds that life is sacred.  If life is that sacred, why don’t they try to ban weapons as well as birth control and contraception?

So-called “local control” also pops up in other ways.  Some thirty years ago, Brigham Young University, which is essentially owned and operated by the Mormon church, used to have faculty who were not of the LDS faith, and full-time faculty were either tenured or on tenure track, allowing them at least a modicum of protection if their public views were at variance with those of the church. In more recent years, BYU has abolished tenure, and, from what I can tell, all faculty must be members in good standing in the LDS faith.  The combination of lack of tenure and the need for standing in the Mormon Church allows the church total control over the faculty.

Interestingly enough, a Utah state legislator has proposed, in two sessions running, legislation to abolish tenure at most state colleges and universities, ostensibly to make it easier to get rid of “bad professors.”  What’s interesting about this is that the state’s Board of Regents implemented a post-tenure review system over five years ago, which has been tightened considerably in recent years… but that’s apparently not enough.  Given that the majority of faculty and administrators at the affected institutions are LDS, what would be the likely impact of this increased “local control”?  Might it just be a far greater reluctance of non-LDS faculty to even want to teach in Utah?  Might it just be, in effect, to turn state colleges and universities into institutions more “in line” with local, i.e., LDS, values?  Wouldn’t that possibly in practice effectively violate the idea of separation of church and state?  And wouldn’t that be essentially antithetical to one of the fundamental purposes of higher education – to broaden a student’s exposure to other values and cultures?

From what I can see, in most cases, people advocating more “local control” are really saying, “We want to do things our way, even if it tramples on the rights of others, because our way is right.”


7 thoughts on ““Local Control” Politics”

  1. Steve says:

    You could just as easily say, “From what I can see, in most cases, people advocating more “Federal control” are really saying, “We want to do things our way, even if it tramples on the rights of others, because our way is right.””

    Much of the debate surrounding our constitution centered on federal vs. state rights and control. There must be a balance. With time control has shifted from states to the federal government. Depending on your point of view that may be good or bad.

  2. Maybe… but in most cases I know [except for the push for gun control], the federal side is toward more freedom for more individuals, whereas the “local control” side is for restricting freedom [the most notable case of states’ rights being, of course, slavery] or for exploiting federal lands and the like for local economic gains.

  3. R. Hamilton says:

    The premise of the Constitution – what got the states to sign up for it – is that the federal government is limited to enumerated powers, but the states are not…although they are limited by requirements for due process and (eventually) equal justice…and for admittance, in effect to themselves have a constitution and a republican form of government; and as I understand it, that subsequently the 14th Amendment (first section) is generally held to constrain the states to also follow the restrictions of the first ten amendments.

    Under the terms in which the states signed the Constitution, state-level religions (actually state-recognized denominations) were perfectly permissible, and they continued for some time…although it was generally understood that the recognition was more a matter of form and custom than a sort of preference that should exclude anyone from office or other position of trust.

    Much of the current excess of federal power has been claimed to have been justified because of legitimate concerns with state abuses, particularly centered on slavery and the aftermath. And states are somewhat more prone to not only abuses of freedom, but various sorts of corruption. However…the federal government has engaged in various of both sorts of abuses…and for EITHER federal or state government to have a pervasive enough range of powers would mean their potential for abuse would be greater…and any abuse that can happen, sooner or later will happen.

    Moreover…the federal government has imposed not only on itself and on state and local government, but even on private institutions, all manner of anti-discrimination provisions. I agree with the nominal objective of them where protected categories are either based on religious freedom or on inherent attributes (but except for religious freedom, NOT on _conduct_, regardless of attributes). But I have a real problem with where the heck the federal government got the power to do that…or with imposing such things in places where they’re less of a problem (no place is perfect, but some are MUCH better or worse than others…so why subject everyone’s freedom of association which also includes freedom of NON-association to the constraints that the worst abusers are rightly subjected to), or in not having such laws include triggers or sunsetting as measurable and sustained progress is made.

    ALL government is at best a necessary evil. Better that it be limited, inefficient, or that corruption be local, than that it be oppressive, and corruption widespread. Some checks on local abuses by central government are necessary, but that should never constitute carte blanche for an expansion of central power; rather, the local voters should exercise their responsibility to throw the rascals out rather than be bought off or be too lazy to pay attention. Failure to do that in a few locales is not a national disaster; but failure to do that on a national level, when the federal government has as much power as it does now, is.

    1. R. Hamilton says:

      PS I’m not fond of some of the distinctive aspects of Mormon theology, although I’d defend their right to them along with anyone else’s. But most of the standards of conduct, even including as a matter of state or local discretion making it relatively inconvenient for someone to behave in ways grossly contradictory to those standards – however private and religiously motivated they may be – I have no problem with at all. I’d have a problem with it if _every_ state did that…but one or a few…if it’s that bad, move to another state.

      I have no problem with most “blue” laws at the state and local level, for example…nor about near-prohibition at the state and local level.

      The modern concept, not quite so directly derived from state sovereignty, is “community standards”. If San Francisco, based on history and current demographics, wishes to permit all manner of things that Utah does not, that’s fine with me too; I might visit either of those places (have been to both, if briefly), but I’m not sure I’d care to live in either one; I’d probably prefer a place that was more nearly libertarian (if voluntarily mostly conservative in conduct) than either…which also ought to be an option somewhere under either state sovereignty or community standards concepts. Shoot…I don’t want nude bicycle riders in _my_ neighborhood, but if some other neighborhood obtains a massive super-majority consent for that, that’s their call; as long as it’s generally known, I can detour if carrying passengers I wish to protect from such sights if it concerns me.

  4. Kath says:

    With regard to the misuse of local control I can’t say that I am in agreement with you. Federal control tends to equalize and generalize all problems. In doing this they are “dumbing down” our society. We need to freedom for all people to succeed and the need to encourage people to try for the best they can do. Our school systems are not better with the “no child left behind” system and a lot of kids are lost because of boredom and lack of motivation. Somehow we need a country where we can have diversity and the freedom to try many solutions to problems and not to try and force people to some mythical standard. The solution is now always MORE government but perhaps the freedom of less government and more incentive to solve our individual problems.

  5. Thomas says:

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