Context, Local Control, Democracy, and Public Schools


photo credit: Mika Twietmeyer @mikajhunter

Context matters. It is pretty simple idea. One of the most solid indictments of the education reform movement is the fact that they advocate blanket policies that impact all schools, all districts, and all states based on experience in just a few districts. From an analysis of a few urban centers, generally in the Northeast, assumptions have been made, policies have been written, and lines have been drawn in the sand. From reading the ed reform blogosphere, it would appear that New York State is an assumed to be an analog for the entire country—urban, suburban, and rural. The conversation about rural poverty is slim, often based on wrong assumption that rural poverty does not impact students of color or that issues in rural schooling are similar to those in urban settings. The constant discussion and debate about teacher’s unions ignores the large number of non-unionized teacher work forces in this country. Also ignored are the varying histories of segregation and desegregation in different regions or the existence (or lack thereof) of a traditional presence of private schooling.

More concerning that the ignorance that education reform advocates seem to have about important structural and contextual factors is the fact that many seem to simply not care. Whatever they perceive is the “crisis” in public education is the only thing that matters. Everyone else be damned, even if we can clearly demonstrate the negative consequences of those blanket education policies on disadvantaged students in other contexts. Perhaps they don’t believe the evidence. Perhaps they play moral equivalency games and decide that these students over here are somehow more worthy or somehow more vulnerable than students over there. Maybe it is simply a game of “out of sight, out of mind” and they just choose to ignore the problems that aren’t visible to them every day.

Given that, it is refreshing when someone in the ed reform camp can drop a little of the arrogance and spend some time contemplating larger implications of their policy positions. Andy Smarick does that just a bit in this article, while simultaneously demonstrating the many flaws within education reform logic.

Many education reformers once thought that parental choice was the “ultimate local control.” When opponents of choice programs defended the district monopoly system by rhetorically asking, “Don’t you believe in your locally elected board?” we’d reply, “We want education decisions to be made as close to kids as possible—by families.” …We assumed that school results would be much better, and school politics much reduced, if we dramatically decentralized the system by handing authority to families, educators, and civil society. Teachers could start and lead schools, nonprofits could operate and support schools, and parents could match their kids to the programs that fit them best… We could rid ourselves of all the campaign nastiness and government sclerosis that comes with embedding public education within a political system.

(On a side note, the idea that education reform was meant to empower teachers is some sort of revisionist fantasy. The burden of proof is on Mr. Smarick here since there are mountains of evidence out there that policies of “choice” and “accountability” have caused, and were in fact designed to cause, the deprofessionalization and disenfranchisement of teachers.)

Of course, the problematic assumption here is that the needs and desires of all families are somehow magically in alignment. Public education is embedded in a democratic and political system because public schools are ground zero for the balancing of individual rights and the greater good of a community that is the nature of living in a democracy. A system based solely on parent choice ignores the fact that parents make decisions based on inherent self-interest. It also makes the incredibly wrong assumption that the primary function and role of public schools is instructional.

Educators watch as some vocal parents serve as unwavering advocates and supporters of public schools—that is until their last child graduates. Then they are never seen again, well until that county commissioner meeting where they show up to speak out against high taxes. We politely listen to the parents who want books banned, want prayer (to just their God, of course) back in school, want the kids with AIDS and those who wear hijabs kicked out of the schools. They want the coach that benched their child fired. We watch, as many who advocate for the needs of black students remain silent as brown students are arrested on their way to school, imprisoned, and deported. We watch, as many advocates for brown students stay silent about the inequity faced by black students. We watch, as the same people who express concerned about policies that perpetuate oppression for students of color demand that transgender students not be allowed in the restroom with their children. If you have ever had the pleasure of studying and reading original historic school board minutes, like I have,  you will see the same themes, patterns, and concerns addressed repeatedly throughout at least 100 years of public schooling.You will see the fundamentals of democracy at work in interesting and surprising ways. In the ed reform utopia, exactly who is negotiating these issues and how? 

Finally I am still confused as to what Mr. Smarick thinks a democracy is if removing democracy gives power to “families, educators, and civil society.”

Local school boards, many reformers believed, were populated by aspiring politicians with pet issues and petty grievances. They were controlled by powerful interest groups who cared about things other than student learning.

I contacted a couple of people I know who have been involved in state level education policy and politics for many, many years in NC. I asked them how many politicians they could name whose “stepping stone” throughout the years was service on one of the 115 local school boards in NC, or even the state school board. They both laughed—hard. I don’t think NC is an outlier, in fact, if there is any truth to the idea that school boards are populated by “1) aspiring politicians for whom this is a rung on the ladder to higher office; 2) former employees of the school system with a score to settle; and 3) single-minded advocates of one dubious cause or another who yearn to use the public schools to impose their particular hang-up on all the kids in town” those few districts would be the outliers. (Irony alert: education reformers being concerned about “single minded advocates of one dubious cause or another.”)

Seems like something that would be easy to compile data on, yet Mr. Smarick does not cite any data. He sites a 12-year-old article also coming from the Fordham camp. This article only quotes 2001 data from a “representative national sample of 827 school districts” to demonstrate that teacher’s unions donated more money to school board elections than parent groups did. So we have completely outdated data that does not reflect the current realities of campaign finance laws or patterns and again, completely ignores that fact that there are a very large number of states where teachers unions basically do not exist. I won’t even bother addressing the flawed logic that the needs of teachers are somehow in opposition to the needs of students or that the “union” is somehow a separate entity from “the teachers” with nefarious string pullers in control.

But a curious thing happened along our righteous, electorally watertight path to greater choice: People decided that they liked democracy, too. [Well, they didn’t just decide that, they have always felt that way] So today, in cities with too few options, families clamor for more choice. At the same time, in cities where charter sectors have blossomed [um, you mean where the earth was salted for traditional public schools?] (e.g., New Orleans, Detroit, Newark), communities are demanding more democratic control. How to balance the two has turned out to be one of the most interesting and difficult quandaries in schooling today…A community’s voters want to have a say over what types of schools exist, what constitutes “good schools,” who runs them, how an area’s culture and traditions are passed on, and much more. Decisions are more reflective of the public’s will when these issues are litigated through the democratic process. Additionally, we can have faith that the discussion is transparent, that people feel agency, and that the results—even if imperfect—will be durable and respected. The “local” and “democratic” aspects of school authority can be especially important in historically underserved communities. Because of segregation, redlining, and other unjust policies, many of our fellow citizens don’t merely suffer unfair conditions; they suffer environments they’ve been precluded from changing. They want and deserve the right to have a significant influence over the policies affecting them and their neighbors— especially those related to the education of their kids. And therein lies our fundamental challenge…So what in the world do we do?

Wow, what a cogent and thoughtful discussion. It almost seems sincere enough to even be divorced from the profiteering motives and market forces mumbo-jumbo that generally underlies the corporate education reform movement. This clearly articulates exactly why so many are deeply opposed to these reform policies. So Mr. Smarick, of course the logical conclusion is that we must embrace democratic control of schools and work to strengthen and improve that practice of democracy and to correct the disenfranchisement of people within the democratic system. We must get rid of charter schools with unelected boards those run by private management companies since they are the antithesis of democratic public schooling. Right…? Surely that is where you are going next…?

We need to begin experimenting, in earnest, with democratically controlled authorizers. If a city has a large charter sector, state government could create a new authorizer with an elected board (or require existing authorizers to move to elected boards). That democratically controlled authorizer would then have a performance contract with each of the city’s public schools, including those operated by the district. The city would preserve its diversity of schools and operators, as well as the right of parents to choose schools, through such an arrangement. But voters would have a say in how the system worked… this approach recognizes the virtues of decentralization and choice as well as democratic control. It gives the community a voice while making it clear that the board’s role is to authorize schools, not operate them.

Nope—so close, yet so far. First of all, notice all the mentions of “cities with large charter sectors.” Yet again, we are writing policy for the whole country based on some isolated examples. Also, if you really believe the problem is cumbersome democracy, how exactly is the creation of two parallel and possibly contradictory democratic systems better? In fact, placing a “democratically controlled authorizer” in a performance oversight role over schools “operated by the district” removes the democratic control of existing public districts run by elected school boards. A plan like this gives citizens less democracy, not more.

Also, Mr. Smarick is forgetting democratically controlled authorizers already exist in many states. North Carolina is one of those. In NC, state lawmakers determine charter schools authorization and review policy. The authority to grant and revoke charters is given to the State Board of Education whose membership consists of two state elected officials (the Lieutenant Governor and the State Treasurer) and others who are appointed to the position by the Governor with confirmation by the state legislature. An elected State Superintendent of Schools guides the work of the State Board of Education. Despite the rather democratic nature of the authorizers, our state has been riddled with charter school scandals (here is one of the best examples), abrupt school closures, and negative impacts on students statewide.

Unfortunately, the evidence already exists that democratic authorization without democratic operational control and continual democratic oversight of public and charter schools can create even more inequity and reduce the quality of education that students receive. The conversations we should be having are about how to actually strengthen and improve democracy in our public school system, not continue to undermine it with schemes that only provide the appearance of democracy.



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