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Julie Woestehoff

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Education "Reformers" Next Target? "One-Size-Fits-All" Democracy

Posted: 09/07/2011 1:37 pm

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 by the nation's Bill Gateses and Eli Broads.

Conservative "education gadfly" Mike Petrilli bluntly advocates doing 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.

Here's more from Petrilli in an interview last May:

The topic of education governance is becoming a major strand of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute's work. That's because we see so many promising reforms crash upon its shores. Want to equalize funding? Expand school choice? Encourage online learning? Our current governance system -- and especially our tradition of "local control" -- makes all of this very difficult. We are launching a new three-year initiative, in partnership with the Center for American Progress, to put the issue of governance in the center of the education reform conversation.

Petriili points out that "data from a recent NSBA-Fordham study showed that most school board members don't place as high a value on test scores as you might think (or as reformers might wish)."

Yes, school boards just don't get the importance of standardized test scores, the need to take public funds away from the district to create more charter schools (what the so-called reformers call "equalized funding") or the benefit of putting children in front of computers all day rather than have them learn from live human beings. So why allow them a voice at all??

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.

Attack on the best, most radical form of local control -- Chicago's LSCs

Recently, 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 six parents, two teachers, one non-teaching staff member, two community residents, the principal, and, in high schools, one student.

In his piece, Warren cites one LSC's decision not to retain a principal a few years ago, 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."

LSC's strong track record

I have been an LSC member as well as an LSC facilitator throughout many principal selections and have found that 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 Chicago 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 in Chicago, 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 as LSCs consistently 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.

 

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