School Choice & Charters Opinion

Choice, Schools, & Taking Democracy Seriously

By Deborah Meier — September 24, 2013 6 min read
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Deborah Meier continues her conversation with Michael J. Petrilli today.

Dear Mike,

Maybe you are right that we share a kind of cynicism. Or maybe a close cousin—healthy skepticism. Especially about politics.

Dilemma: One can have politics without democracy, but one can’t have democracy without politics. Ditto for self-interest—if power is fairly equally distributed. Democracy and equality are inextricably connected! Furthermore, unions, equality, and democracy are closely linked.

The idea, you suggest, that the 5 to 10 percent of the public that belong to unions could outweigh the 5 to 10 percent at the top of the wealth ladder seems ... unlikely. Mike, quit worrying about the power of unions—alas. Especially since the unions that remain (predominantly public employee unions) are constrained in their ability to use the most powerful tool they might have—collectively refusing to go to work. It’s much easier for private corporations to close their shops (and move elsewhere, for example) than for working people to create a union that can “close the shop.” Public employee unions that dare strike can (in liberal New York, for example) pay a heavy price.

Yet I still hold on to the naïve belief that my bogeyman—the very rich—won’t always win. But having nearly half the wealth of the nation in its hands is formidable. And indeed, ideology closely relates to one’s wealth, power, and social status. Yes, a scoundrel worth millions is a lot more dangerous than one earning $42,000 (the average income of the other 90 percent).

How do you explain why children were, as you put it, “chained” to failing schools long before there were teachers’ unions with contracts of any sort, or in those states today without unions or with unions without bargaining power? It just amazes me that you imagined teachers’ unions were getting their way on most matters—even in the states and cities which have had powerful teachers’ unions during the past half-century. “Near hegemony?” It’s as if we’ve lived in different worlds—which perhaps we have.

But we agree, probably, that union leaders/bosses sometimes confuse the power of the union (and themselves) with its purpose: to represent the power of their members to run their unions. In addition, the difference between a union’s power to influence decisions about wages, working life, and school policy and its members daily power inside their particular school. They (we) didn’t get that balance right and as a trade unionist and teacher I regret that, even as I understand the dilemma unions face between democratic norms and unity of action! Teachers (traditionally lower-middle-class women) were, perhaps, too accustomed to top-down environments in so many aspects of their lives to protest being treated disrespectfully at school, and besides they lacked the time it takes—that precious leisure vital to democracy. At Central Park East and Mission Hill we discovered that it takes time for everyone to wear the hat of school citizen and teacher of x or y class—and citizen of many other institutions including being a family member! Government for, by, and of is time-consuming!

Democracy is not synonymous with freedom, liberty, doing my own thing, or any of the other precious goods (like equality). Or choice. Democracy is about how we decide between precious goods—including diverse self-interests of all sorts—and our ability to change our minds. Yes, I love choice. But how much, when, where depends on the context and particulars of the situation. That’s true in society and within the schoolhouse and within the classroom, too! “It depends on ...” Ideally kids would be learning in school about the trade-offs a community must consider—which choices should come before others. Example: If school choice was popular in the South in the 1960s it was because it meant segregated schools. Now that’s a choice I’d prohibit. But I loved the choices available in East Harlem in the 1970s and ‘80s when I worked there, even as I thought school personnel had somewhat too much power to decide whose choices counted—the school’s or the parents’ and students’? And I knew intimately the limits of lotteries.

In Boston the whole city had court-enforced choice—controlled by racial quotas. The only trouble was that most middle-class whites abandoned the city because the percentages didn’t augur well for what they thought was good for their children. It was good for Mission Hill, but harder after the quotas were declared to be constitutionally questionable. It will get harder still since we were involuntarily moved from Roxbury into a predominantly upper-middle-class white community last fall (Jamaica Plain). Choice still exists, but ...

Yes, in the “old days” parents and teachers were told “tough luck.” They were both assigned to schools without concern for their preferences. In New York City a teacher could be “excessed” from one school into another—with the “progressive” teacher being sent to a very traditional school and vice-versa. When I complained, I was frankly told that a big system couldn’t pay attention to mere personal preferences. That way was chaos. Ditto for parents.

Sometimes a school—due to a particular principal, sometimes to some strong teachers within the school, plus a cabal of active parents—developed a distinctively different culture from the school six blocks down the avenue. But neither parents nor teachers could choose between them. Today New York City has choice. And chaos. IF, and pretty much ONLY IF, you have a child whose test scores are high is the choice between literally hundreds of choices actually useful. And it helps if your child can afford to go to and fro, or have the pull it sometimes takes to squeeze into a popular school. And under these circumstances, believe me, “threatening” to remove your child if your voice is ignored has very little impact. (There’s a child on the waiting list right behind yours whose parents might give less trouble.)

Nor, in my opinion, should we encourage families with young children (under 16?) to decide their life’s future vocation by which school they attend. There is something important to be gained by being mixed in with others?

Choice is one among many important democratic values, alongside values sometimes in conflict with choice. Our agendas may include most of the same items, but the order of importance they have for us depends on the particular context—and varies widely. So we’re stuck generally trying to negotiate compromises that satisfy enough people so that it can be democratically imposed! That’s what we mean by politics. The politicking is often about at what level specific decisions should be made. Aside from the Constitution—interpreted differently at different times in our history—what role should different levels of governance have in deciding such matters? I think, when it comes to schools, it’s important that the body involved be public, transparent, self-sustaining (not fiscally dependent on a private body), and as close to those affected as reasonable.

A strong education on behalf of democracy rests on respect for the children’s families and their teachers. Children’s learning is crippled in schools that disrespect their families. And teachers cannot pass on a strong intellectually serious democratic culture if they aren’t models of the benefits and dilemmas entailed. The charters that are “piloting” such autonomy (most aren’t) should be part of public schooling—as they were in East Harlem and Boston. That’s where the fight must take place. I think Maryland’s position on charters—that you refer to—leads to schools more compatible with the long-range interests of democracy than Washington’s decision to embrace charterdom. (P.S. Public is not the same as non-profit.)

If we are not to slide into becoming a third-world nation, with a small middle class, ruled over by an elite with international loyalties that sometimes outstrip any local ones, we need to take democracy more seriously. I’m with our “founding fathers” that democracy depends on maintaining at least a modicum of local roots and human-sized politics. If not schools ...?


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