New extremists in the education debate represent a mindset unwilling to fight things out on a democratic playing field, no matter how unlevel. Instead, they aim to eliminate the playing field altogether
March 21, 2014

For people who like to think of themselves as being "exceptional," Americans can sometimes abandon the very principles their exceptionality is founded on.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the current debate of education policy.

A feature that has long made America's public school system exceptional for sure is its governance through democratically elected local school boards. The way this has been working, according to the National School Boards Association, is that your local school board "represents the public’s voice in public education, providing citizen governance for what the public schools need and what the community wants."

Any power a school board has is generated through the exercise of democracy. When you don't agree with decisions made by your board members, "it is your right as a voter to select new board members who will see to it that your students and your schools succeed."

How American is that?

But now, many of the loudest voices in the nation's education debate tell us that is completely and utterly wrong.

These new extremists are Republicans and Democrats. They are extremely well financed and connected. They adorn their arguments with the language of "opportunity" and "sustained excellence." But what they really represent is a mindset unwilling to fight things out on a democratic playing field, no matter how unlevel. Instead, they aim to eliminate the playing field altogether.

Since When Is Democracy 'Socialism?'

Among the new extremists in the education policy debate are those who would have us believe that the schools Americans have democratically decided to build and govern are actually downright un-American.

Recently, folks at the TPM news outlet flagged an example of this from Ohio Republican State Representative Andrew Brenner, who wrote on his personal website that "Public education in America is socialism."

In Brenner's bizarre historical account, public education "has been a socialist system since the founding of our country." Apparently, this system, consisting primarily "one room school houses," was adequate a mere "100 years ago," but "does not work well today." (Despite producing the vast majority of Nobel Prize winners, more patents than the rest of the world combined, and the most powerful economy the planet has ever seen, mind you.)

The solution according to Brenner is "a more privatized system" in which "the schools that fail will go out of business" in a "free-market system." (So Brenner's next campaign pledge will be, "I promise to create more schools that will fail?")

Brenner's outburst – with its preposterous recasting of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams as forerunners to Karl Marx – would be easily laughed off if it weren't for the fact that it typifies the Republican Party's entire education agenda.

Republican leaders at all levels – from House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, to Governors Bobby Jindal and Chris Christie, to state lawmakers in North Carolina and Indiana – are pushing to give parents vouchers or "scholarships" and tell them to take their chances in an "open market." This "opportunity" to take a chance in a loosely regulated crapshoot is somehow preferable to the "socialism" of democratic governance.

But in places where parents have had these voucher systems, what has the "open market" provided?

In Washington DC, according to The Washington Post, the district’s voucher program has lead to “hundreds of students” using voucher dollars to “attend schools that are unaccredited or are in unconventional settings … The government has no say over curriculum, quality or management. And parents trying to select a school have little independent information.” And the city's "achievement gap" the voucher was intended to correct has "in fact widened."

Outside of DC, "vouchers don’t do much for students," Stephanie Simon recently reported at Politico:

In Milwaukee, just 13 percent of voucher students scored proficient in math and 11 percent made the bar in reading this spring. That’s worse on both counts than students in the city’s public schools. In Cleveland, voucher students in most grades performed worse than their peers in public schools in math, though they did better in reading.

In New Orleans, voucher students who struggle academically haven’t advanced to grade-level work any faster over the past two years than students in the public schools, many of which are rated D or F, state data show.

And across Louisiana, many of the most popular private schools for voucher students posted miserable scores in math, reading, science and social studies.

Self-Perpetuating Plutocracy

Unfortunately, Republicans aren't alone in their disdain for democracy and public control of education.

Also proclaiming an end to democratic rule of schools are an equally powerful and well financed faction who pushes for privately run charter schools unencumbered by public disagreements.

One of their chief spokesmen, Netflix founder and CEO Reed Hastings, spoke recently at a meeting of the California Charter Schools Association and stated that schools "are prisoners" of democratic governance. He declared that the "chaos" of freely elected school boards where board membership changes based on the will of voters "leads to schools not having sustained excellence."

What's needed instead, Hastings insisted, is a network of charter schools with the "self-perpetuating governance" of non-profit and for-profit boards, where board members pick their successors and the whole system is spared the interruption of messy elections.

"Self-perpetuating governance among organizations that compete with each other," he maintained, is already accomplishing wonderful things in cities like New Orleans, where "nearly all the schools are charters " and are getting "amazing results."

Hastings conceded, "If we go to the general public and say here's why we should get rid of school boards, of course, no one is going to go for that … school boards have been iconic part of America for over 200 years." But because charter schools have progressed like a "rocket ship compared to basic ideas like democracy," Hastings foresaw a system dominated by charters as virtually inevitable in 20-30 years.

Like Rep. Brenner above, Hastings added a bizarre reading of history to his theory, in his case, connecting the triumph of his cause back through the Civil Rights Movement and the American Revolution, to the establishment of "government by the consent of the governed" and rejection of the divine right of kings. What a triumph that must be for him!

Mostly, however, it's a triumph built on fantasy. The "amazing results" of private charter governance in NOLA Recovery School District are, according to education blogger Gary Rubenstein, a result of distorting the data and constantly changing achievement criteria to make the system's numbers look good.

In the meantime, as Louisiana teacher Mercedes Schneider has noted on her blog, NOLA "parents have no legislatively-protected say regarding the quality of education provided by New Orleans charters. Louisiana parents do not exercise any democratically recognized authority over the charters in their districts … Parents enforce no formalized power over either charter presence or practices in their districts."

In a school district like New York City, which Hastings also extolled, where years of imposed mayoral control has eliminated the meaningful input of school boards, improvements in student test scores have been "mediocre at best" according to data crunching done by a New Jersey music teacher and blogger Jersey Jazzman.

In other schools that have been relieved of the democratic governance of school boards, public disempowerment has been the principal legacy of such as system. In Newark, New Jersey, as my colleague Richard Eskow recently wrote, state takeover with elimination of local control has led to "cutting school funding and turning schools over to charter organizations while a hand-picked superintendent runs roughshod over local school officials, community leaders, and the city’s children."

No wonder, as education historian Diane Ravitch noted in her post about the Hastings speech, "No high-performing nation in the world has handed its schools over to private management."

Whose Schools? Our Schools!

In episode ten of the excellent video series "A Year at Mission Hill, " Deborah Meier, the renowned educator whose principles and ideas guide the Mission Hill school, explained the centrality of democracy to the current confusion over education policy.

"I think what we're facing in America today and around the world," Meier said, "is not a crisis in education but a crisis in faith and respect for democracy, which rests on having respect for the judgment of ordinary people."

The ordinary people, of course, in our nation's public schools are the teachers, school leaders, and local officials who oversee the school every day and who are entrusted by the parents and the rest of the community to educate all our children.

What extremists in the education debate are calling for now is to remove all trust and respect from these ordinary people and deposit that faith into a competitive market system operated by people who more often than not don't even live in the same community the children and parents do.

As a San Francisco school board member recently wrote, also in response to the Hastings speech,"School boards are not an anachronistic carry-over from the years of the one-room schoolhouse … School boards exist because public schools belong to and are directly accountable to the communities they serve. That is what makes them public … Bureaucrats or benevolent billionaires alone will never suffice."

The idea of democratic governance of schools as a principal means for ensuring the quality of schools has never worked perfectly for sure.

It's true that too few people bother to vote in school board elections. The electoral system is often prone to manipulation from powerful individuals and self-interested groups. Elected boards are often overly contentious to the point of dysfunction. And the country's history is replete with examples of local boards that perpetuated widespread mistreatment of minorities to the point where outside intervention was necessary.

But where else has democratic governance achieved perfection? There are democratic solutions to these problems: Do more to increase voter education and turnout, limit the influence of money and factional interests, and ensure checks and balances from outside authorities that are also democratically elected.

If we want to give ordinary people more of a voice in determining the education destinies of their children and their communities, the solution is more democracy, not less.

Jeff Bryant is Director of the Education Opportunity Network, a partnership effort of the Institute for America's Future and the Opportunity to Learn Campaign. Jeff owns a marketing and communications consultancy in Chapel Hill, N.C., and has written extensively about public education policy.

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