School Choice & Charters Opinion

Why Voting Beats ‘Voting With One’s Feet’

By Deborah Meier — March 20, 2014 5 min read
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Deborah Meier writes again to Robert Pondiscio of Democracy Prep.

Dear Robert,

I don’t want to give you too much joy, Robert. But, yes, I’m always nervous about rapid changes (so I’m conservative in this sense), and I can’t bear being confined physically or intellectually. (I have strong libertarian impulses.) The inside of my house is being painted, and I wince over every decision that involves a change (in color, especially). And I always sit in confined places as close to the aisle and door as I can.

But I also—and here’s the rub—can’t stand unfairness. So I’m also eager for change in other contexts. It may be that I’m calling it change when at root it’s a return to something I experienced earlier. But regardless, I can’t become comfortable with how we conflate meritocracy with inherited advantage and luck when it comes to the lives of the young.

What happened in the South Bronx that made you drop some (which?) beliefs you thought of as liberal? My similar experiences had, perhaps, the opposite effect. I was stunned by how differently we school the rich and the poor. And likewise how differently the teachers in “wealthy” schools are treated vs. teachers who work in low-income communities. It was as though the contempt we feel for the students they teach transfers to a contempt for them as well. It seeps into the culture at every pore available—from the main office to the classroom, to the bells and whistles, the distrust over supplies, the monitoring, etc. Did you know that teachers are supposed to clock in and out if they leave the building for lunch in New York City public schools? And if I wanted to send a teacher to a conference I had to get permission x number of weeks ahead of time from y supervisor? I didn’t comply. “I got away with it.” That phrase itself enrages me.

Yes, “accountability"—and “responsibility,” which is a word I rather prefer—is a complex concept. But I remind you that democracy was invented for just that purpose. Even limited forms of democracy (in ancient Greece or England or the USA in its early years) were based on the idea that rulers were responsible to a broader constituency. That no one could operate outside of “the rules"—based on personal whim.

But is “voting with one’s feet” the only option we have for holding school systems responsible for our public schools? Voting “with one’s feet” is a market-based form of voting. But there is another better way. Actually voting. Mission Hill School is governed by several different mechanisms. There’s a governing board that consists of an equal number of elected parents and staff members who then agree on an equivalent number of “community” members. (At present, there is also an equivalent student group.) On certain critical decisions the board can only act if there is a majority of each constituency (three out of five).

Most decisions regarding curriculum, pedagogy, scheduling, and assessment are made by the faculty, as defined by the board. For some staff decisions, only those who’ve been voted onto the permanent staff at the end of a two-/three-year probationary period have a vote. Other decisions are made by the entire staff. Of course, democracy doesn’t mean one needs to get together as a whole to make every decision—wise schools delegate a good deal. But nothing is ever “undiscussable.” And we make sure there is sufficient time to do so. Leisure is an essential part of democracy.

It works. No doubt there are other forms of governance that would also work. But at its foundation is a common belief in “by, for, and of” those affected by the decisions being made. (Like any governing body there are decisions to be made about the age a voter must be.)

Choice is also desirable in any social arrangement. My mantra for years was on behalf of small, self-governing schools of choice. But, as with so much else in life, not all choices are the same. In no known society do we have complete free choice, but if the trade-offs that come from offering choices seem worth it, why not offer them? (Which is also why I’m for providing students with opportunities to exercise choice also.)

I’ve discovered, painfully, that my championship of choice for many years has turned into a monster. Instead, choice has become a way to reinforce segregation as well as encouraging the breakup of a sense of community, rather than bring communities together. Rhetoric defending choice has been used to justify attacking public education and increasing inequality, which was never my intention. It needn’t be so, however. I’m still for “controlled” choice under the right circumstances. Not if it exacerbates segregation by class, race, ethnicity, et al. Not if the primary purpose is competition! But all else being equal, one would always rather be where one wants to be than assigned willy-nilly. That goes for students, parents, and staff. But ... again, “it depends” on what is being traded off for what.

It’s interesting to see how we both worry about “fraud, abuse, and yes, profiteering” in different places. Decisions about materials made by faculty are far less likely to create abuse and fraud. They may choose “unwisely,” in my opinion. But that’s how we learn. And materials that staff have contempt for are of no use, or worse.

And when it comes to knowing whether kids are learning how to read or do basic math—there are so many better and more reliable ways to find out than high-stakes tests—ways that reassure parents, staff, and governing bodies. Mostly one on one, recorded, and “scored” by several staff. It can be done for every child, and sampling can be done on a district or state level as a check on very suspicious results. “Grade level” is a term I hate: It either is a political norm or a statistical norm. The latter means that half score higher and half lower. The former means it’s based on whether one wants high or low scores for political purposes. We absolutely must get over our trust in any form of standardized testing that has high stakes and/or serves more than one purpose.

So, finally, I’m intrigued by your comments, which make me realize I’m more a “process” than an “outcome” person. I’d rather have a faulty democracy than an efficient dictatorship, for example. And the kinds of adults I want to keep company with our children have to be treated as if we trusted their judgment—at least 90 percent of the time. But not all decisions in a democracy can be made at this level, nor should be. But in a time in which impersonal relationships, virtual worlds, threaten our freedom and community, schools are a critical place for demanding old-fashioned community life.

And I’m still for small sizes in part because it enables the adults to operate more democratically and collegially—and it’s easier for folks to be able to depend on their first-hand knowledge vs. the kind of data that’s far too easy to manipulate. At the heart of democracy is learning to exercise good judgment: with one’s own interests and the common good in mind. That’s best learned by experiencing what it feels like to live within a setting where everyone’s judgment is held in high esteem.


The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.