This past Sunday afternoon, I had occasion to watch democracy at work. As I describe here, I was part of the audience in Fort Wayne, Indiana as a panel including the president of the state senate committee on public education, a member of the state school board, and the president of the local Fort Wayne Board of Education discussed state education policy that dictates vouchers, an “A through F” rating system for public schools, and rapid charterization.
Although I am definitely not a political science expert, I could see that representatives of state agencies listened more carefully (or felt more threatened) when they were confronted by the president of the local school board than when the individual teachers and parents in the audience made comments and asked questions. The president of the elected local school board carried the power of most everyone in the room and the majority of Fort Wayne’s voters, after all.
My recent experience in Fort Wayne reminded me of something I heard in New Orleans during the crisis after Hurricane Katrina, when a state Recovery School District was imposed on the Orleans Parish public school district. The state seized all the schools with scores below a state-established benchmark, a standard set so high that the state was able to take over virtually all the public schools. The Recovery School District began a mass experiment in charterization and laid off all of the public school teachers in New Orleans, effectively abrogating a legal contract with the United Teachers of New Orleans, AFT—breaking the union. Without the power to do anything about it, parents profoundly cried out to name what had happened to them: “They stole our public schools and they stole our democracy, all while we were out of town.”
Today Governor Rick Scott and the legislature in Michigan have imposed state-appointed emergency managers in many of Michigan’s poorest and most segregated school districts—Highland Park, Muskegon Heights, Inkster, Buena Vista, and Detroit. The emergency managers can nullify local union contracts, bring in private corporations to run entire school districts, fire teachers, radically escalate class size and even dissolve the school district and merge it with the one next door. Neither the elected school boards, nor the superintendents who report to those school boards, nor the voters can impact what is happening. In Pennsylvania the state-appointed School Reform Commission has been dictating to Superintendent Hite according to the wishes of those in Harrisburg who appointed the members of the Commission. In states like Ohio and Indiana, where one political party is gerrymandered to control both the governor’s office and both houses of the legislature, one-party government is preventing democratic debate at the state level.
And in a number of large cities, mayoral governance—with the mayor’s appointed school board—has replaced the democratic form of school governance represented by an elected board of education. We have watched as rubber-stamp school board members, serving at the pleasure of the mayor who appointed them, vote in lock-step with the mayor’s wishes. Examples are New York City, Chicago, Cleveland, Oakland, and Providence,
Democracy as represented in local school boards is a stable form of school governance. Instead today’s school reformers prefer disruptive change of the sort deliberative local school boards are less likely to approve—portfolio school reform, school closure, and privatization. In her new book, Reign of Error, education historian Diane Ravitch discusses the importance of democracy as represented through elected boards of education:
“The reformers are correct when they say that elected school boards are an obstacle to radical change. They move slowly. They argue. They listen to different points of view. They make mistakes. They are not bold and transformative. They prefer incremental change. In short, they are a democratic forum. They are a check and balance against concentrated power in one person or one agency… Authoritarian governments can move decisively… They are able to make change without pondering or taking opposing views into account… There is an arrogance to unchecked power. There is no mechanism to vet its ideas, so it plunges forward, sometimes into disastrous schemes… No reform idea is so compelling and so urgent that it requires the suspension of democracy.” (Reign of Error, pp. 287-288)