Education Opinion

Trusting Democracy at the School Board Level

By Deborah Meier — December 09, 2010 4 min read
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Dear Diane,

Your blog on Tuesday is a powerful statement. We are, I do believe, in a fight over the most fundamental building blocks of democracy.

Alas, many of my best friends are wary about democracy when it gets local. But as someone (Thomas Jefferson, in fact) once said—to paraphrase: The only protection a democracy has against ignorance is education itself. Knowledge shall set us free and all that. But it gets hard when it becomes difficult to trust any of the sources of information to which we have access. Democracy requires a full range of sources, so that it’s hard to fool all the people all the time. It needs adults who were educated themselves in decision-making, not bubbling in the “proper” answer. I get overwhelmed by clichés when I start down this path of argument. Forgive me!

It’s hard these days to draw out from friends what forms of democracy they are willing to “trust"—not to make the right decision, but to make legitimate decisions. All the smart people seem to agree: not school boards!

Why not school boards? And, I literally mean boards that oversee particular schools or a small cluster of schools.

Not enough people vote in them is one excuse. We could decide on a quorum? Or we could accept responsibility for bringing those numbers up. Or we could agree that those sufficiently interested constitute the body politic as we do on equally low votes elsewhere, including primaries for the highest offices in the land. Or we could decide to weight parent votes and include an elected staff person to sit on all boards. Or other forms of playing with ways to make it a more “trustworthy” body. But we can’t fall back on our disrespect of “locals.”

Paraphrasing Winston Churchill: Democracy is absurd until you consider the alternatives.

I feel the same about local school boards. If we don’t trust the local population to make decisions about their own local schools, why should we trust “the people” about anything else? For better or worse, they probably are in a position to know more about what makes a good school than about issues of macro- or micro-economics (like taxes), or atomic energy policy, or climate warming!

Of the people, by the people, for the people. I’m full of clichés today.

Patrick Sullivan, a member of the powerless New York City mayor’s advisory board (called PEP) says it well:

“But the worst of all this is that the people who control our schools ... don’t send their own kids to these schools. They have one idea of education for our kids and an entirely different one for their own. ... Beyond autonomy, beyond accountability, beyond privatization, the core principle of the Bloomberg administration ... is condescension: ... one idea for their children and a different idea ... for everybody else ... and that’s what has to stop.” (Example: The school where Cathie Black—our new chancellor in NYC—sends her kids has 12 students per class.)

We need to go back to the original Tea Party—no taxation without representation. No one thousands of miles across the sea has the right, or the ability, to make decisions for us locals. If we are taxed to pay for our schools, we deserve a direct voice in what they stand for—the broad definitions of schooling’s tasks and its principles. Then those even closer to the action should be deciding the day-to-day, classroom-to-classroom stuff. We can argue about what decisions belong to which local constituency—parents, kids, local citizens, or teachers. What is truly innovative at schools such as Mission Hill (a Boston public school I helped start 14 years ago) was how decisions were made. We found a way to include all voices in our “local” board, while still being subject to some citywide, state-wide, and federal “control.” We deal with too much of the latter, but by using our united strength when needed, we’ve managed to hold off many unwelcome intrusions. It’s not an ideal balance, but it would be interesting for all the reformers to look at this kind of model and tweak it to fit their own situations, rather than inventing their own ideas about how “other people’s children” should be educated in “other people’s communities.”

There is no one right way to govern. We have, after all, 50 different ways of governing in the United States, plus. When democracy doesn’t work well, the idea is to tweak it, not abandon it! (Diane: Read Federalism in America, by Gary Gerstle in the fall 2010 issue of Dissent.) He makes a case for the critical role that the fight against states’ rights played earlier in the last century, but also for developing progressive forms of federalism—local rights—to develop in the 21st.)

In an already overly standardized and centralized world, we need counterbalances. Raising our kids is a good place to take a stand.

Why can’t we all be more like me, is hardly a sufficient measuring stick; but worse still is the view that those closest to the action are untrustworthy for that very reason—a “self-interest group”!!! Who but some far off nut could have mandated a reading program that forbids read-alouds in school except from the authorized reading series! Yet that’s what Angie Hood, in an e-mail I got last week, says she confronts in her Iowa district. But bad as that is—ugh, ugh—I’d far rather fight a stupid local decision than the United States Department of Education, plus the Congress, over what I can read aloud tomorrow.


P.S. I just got back from an exciting NEA urban schools conference in Tulsa, Okla. I heard brilliant short talks from Yong Zhao, George Wood, Gloria Ladson-Billings, Kevin Welner, and Monty Neil, and a lively discussion followed. An audio-video might be available soon. Go to Yong Zhao’s website for a look at his videos.

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