Next target of ed "reformers" – democracy

“Reformers” next target: “one-size-fits-all” democracy

Now that they’ve had some success destroying public education, the school reform privateers are setting their sights on something even more precious and fundamental to our nation – our democracy.

You see, democracy is “messy” and “one-size-fits-all” and has a pesky habit of getting in the way of even more mega profits and oligarchic* control, which the Bill Gateses and Eli Broads feel is their due.

Last week, former Chicago Tribune honcho James Warren wrote this in an editorial about how to fix schools for his new news outlet, the Chicago News Cooperative:

There is…a conspicuously unmentioned player: local school councils. In hiring and dismissing principals, they can be democracy run amok.

Local school councils (LSCs) are elected bodies in most Chicago schools which decide on the school budget and annual improvement plan, and hire and evaluate their principals. LSC voting members include 6 parents, two teachers, one non-teaching staff member, two community residents, the principal, and, in high schools, one student.

Warren cites one LSC’s decision not to retain a principal a few years ago at the school his children attended, and this example: “At Lake View, a seemingly uninspired candidate—a former teacher there with lots of faculty chums —was just voted in as new principal.”

Wow. That’s strong stuff, right? Good enough reason to do away with any and all citizen representation and participation in school decision making, especially now that we have a new mayor, Rahm Emanuel. Warren exhorts the mayor to add this to his to-do list

“Rehab One-Size-Fits-All School Councils Even If Community Groups Go Ballistic.”

Schools boards, too

And then we have conservative “education gadfly” Mike Petrilli advocating that we do away with school boards, in his recent essay, “One Size Fits Most“:

We (should) continue to minimize the role of the 14,000 school boards (if not eliminate them outright) by empowering states to take an ever-larger role in all aspects of educational improvement.

Petrilli has more to say about this in a related letter exchange that came across my e-mail today:

Those of us at Fordham are teaming up with the Center for American Progress on a three year examination of issues of “governance,” with “rethinking local control” at the center of it.

It seems that scaling up could take one of two routes (or maybe both routes). On the one hand, we could push for a major effort to eliminate school boards/ school districts–or, more likely, keep them but diminish their roles–and centralize as much as possible to the state level. Get rid of the structural/political barriers that keep folks from working more effectively across district lines, that keep ed schools from being joined at the hip with schools, etc. That would help with “coherence”–and would at least set the stage for capability-building. But talk about a big political lift!

The other route is to encourage the scale-up of the charter networks as fast as possible. But even “fast as possible” will take a long time.

Of course, there is a third possibility, and that is to stop thinking about “schools” and “teachers” and start focusing instead on “learners” and how they can get access to the best education via digital learning.

It’s as though one-person-one-vote has become the new “one-size-fits-all” for these folks. And it all fits nicely together with their “vision” for education  – if we reduce schooling to reading and math test prep, our children will grow up never knowing what democracy is all about. They’ll never know what they’re missing.

LSCs track record

Let’s look at the best – and most radical – example of local control for a minute, Chicago’s local school councils. I have been an LSC member as well as a facilitator throughout many principal selections and have found that the LSCs in a wide variety of schools carry out the process thoughtfully and thoroughly. Of course, there are exceptions, and often the pool of candidates is not as deep as we’d like it to be, but the results of LSC principal selection are generally effective,  as principals themselves have asserted.

The mainstream media is not good at reporting the success of LSC processes, and notably allowed itself to be used shamefully during the 2007 Mayor Daley-Curie LSC feud over a non-retained principal who was a Daley crony. But smaller neighborhood papers will often give the public a glimpse into the careful, inclusive way LSCs usually work. Here’s one example from this week’s Hyde Park Herald, starting on page 1 (link live only for the week): “The two candidates in attendance responded to questions from the selection committee as well as questions from parents and community members.”

Here are a couple more local stories from the Herald, about Shoesmith and Reavis schools which describe LSCs consistently as performing extensive searches and looking for the best fit for the school, even in cases where an internal candidate is heavily promoted.

I can’t think of better hands for this critical decision to rest in than the school’s parents, staff, and community residents, and a better antidote to the nay-saying oligarchs.


* Wikipedia describes oligarchy as a form of power structure in which power effectively rests with a small number of people. These people could be distinguished by royalty, wealth, family ties, corporate, or military control. Such states are often controlled by a few prominent families who pass their influence from one generation to the next. Throughout history, most oligarchies have been tyrannical, relying on public servitude to exist.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, privately owned Russia-based multinational corporations, including producers of petroleum, natural gas, and metal have become oligarchs. Privatization allowed executives to amass phenomenal wealth and power almost overnight.

Corporate oligarchy is a form of power, governmental or operational, where such power effectively rests with a small, elite group of inside individuals, sometimes from a small group of educational institutions, or influential economic entities or devices, such as banks, commercial entities that act in complicity with, or at the whim of the oligarchy, often with little or no regard for constitutionally protected prerogative.

German sociologist Robert Michels believed that any political system eventually evolves into an oligarchy. According to this school of thought, modern democracies should be considered as oligarchies. In these systems, actual differences between viable political rivals are small, the oligarchic elite impose strict limits on what constitutes an acceptable and respectable political position, and politicians’ careers depend heavily on unelected economic and media elites.

Wikipedia points out that well-known fictional oligarchy represented by the Party in George Orwell’s novel 1984.

— Julie Woestehoff, PAA-Chicago

Posted on by Julie Woestehoff Posted in Uncategorized

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