Mayoral Control and Democratic Schooling

In an interview with the Journal-Sentinel published the day prior to the meeting, Secretary of Education Duncan noted:

“Where the challenges are so large, you need all hands on deck . The best way I can think to get everyone rowing in the same direction is from leadership at the top, and that comes from the mayor.”

Leadership or control? Duncan means control.

It is a funny conundrum. We invented (a century and a half ago) universal public education on the grounds that it was a prerequisite for democracy. But democracy is an idea we have such little faith in that we fear allowing control over schools to lie in the hands of their own constituents, or any combination of such constituents. I refer here mostly to parents and teachers, and the immediate community served by the school, and possibly even its students. But friends of mine often agree with Duncan on the grounds either that, on one hand, it is too dangerous (they might sneak in school prayers, creationism and, of course, racism), and on the other hand they would not dare take the kind of radical steps necessary for the sake of the children or our nation’s economy. In essence the new reformers argue that “politics” (local, close to the site) is bad for schools, while Mayoral and Federal control are good.

Every authoritarian movement or leader has for centuries made more or less the same arguments: that “the people” will misuse their power or that the people are too timid or selfish to take the necessary revolutionary measures that are in their interests. “We,” the enlightened, must do it for them.

Can schools, in which even well-educated professionals are seen as too risky to trust, a likely place to inculcate respect for democracy? Of course, democracy is filled with trade-offs that make it hard to always help us arrive at the best decisions. There are places where I too have favored federal, rather than local control. For instance, I supported the kind of authoritarian directives from the Supreme Court that, in the name of democracy, outlawed school segregation. (Of course, the limits of even such righteous power is well noted in the limited impact that directive had.) And I regret the Supreme Court’s subsequent decisions against implementing such policy through affirmative action or quotas. Where they went wrong perhaps was in trying to micro-manage it? But both were essentially “political” decisions.

Nor, in the name of accountability, am I against the State’s role in the collecting of data that exposes the impact of schools and society on different races, ethnicities and economic substrata. Information is a form of power needed by “locals.”

The idea that we can decide virtually all of the important decisions made within a school through authoritarian means and then insist that the institution’s role is to promote democratic thinking is just plain stupid, absurd and, in fact, an oxymoron. To put this on a somewhat more trivial level, it reminds me of the experience kids have trying to invent board games. They have great ideas. They love doing it. But it’s only in actually playing the game that one discovers whether it works. Ditto for democracy. Churchill’s quote in defense of democracy—that it’s a thoroughly absurd idea “except for when one considers the alternatives,” is one I keep in mind morning, noon and night.

If we are to support democracy as well as invent better forms of it—appropriate revisions of the game—we need a citizenry that understands the game better. Why ever did we invent a rule that allows 40% to veto 60%? Why can nine men (or women) appointed in times past, outlaw legislation that 60% now support? Why do some individual citizens votes on national matters count 5, 10 or 100 times more than other citizens? Why do experts on the economy not get more votes on economic decisions than outright ignoramuses? Bah humbug to democracy if such absurdities define it….or, is it possible that I too at times count on such roadblocks to common sense? There may be good reasons—though debatable ones—for each of these. But students and their teachers need to be exposed to such arguments, not only through the written word but also through experience.

A democratic citizenry needs habits – of mind and heart – that hold them back from the momentary appeal of authoritarian measures. Probably not even democracy can guarantee that we make wise decisions about democracy. But both institutional and personal habits can provide us the time to correct and revise our passions of the moment. It is in crises that our habits are most tested. Skepticism, which I much value, is not the same as “the habit of distrust.” In fact, as a habit, I rather like the default position of trust. It is a habit that helps smooth the way for democracy. But—and this is a big but—we need to counterbalance the habit of trust with the habits of skepticism. We need to balance trust with an acknowledgment that there are good reasons to distrust.

The same goes for “civility” of manner and mutual respect and tolerance. These are all three good habits. But….. They are dangerous without a critical second opinion, the habits of indignation, the willingness to act even in face of uncertainty, the habits associated with solidarity and empathy.

In short—a good education requires us to continually rethink our own habits, as we also honor them, to take note of the consequences and accept responsibility for them. And on and on. Will schools that engage in this, while also engaging in teaching kids specific skills and academic knowledge, survive? Indeed, if they can’t, neither will democracy writ large. At least, for starters, we ought to try it out in the ways we adults interact and implement decisions in our schools. To do so, we need to leave more power inside the schools.

Finally, there’s a interesting auxiliary reason: kids are not comfortable in the presence of powerless “wimpy” adults. And adults who are always having to say, “I didn’t decide that, so don’t blame me” are actively promoting a mindset which runs in direct conflict with the environment best suited to learning. It also substantially undercuts the desire of the young to grow up (and be powerful), and their respect for their teachers.

This column is an exploration of a subject of increasing interest to me. Comment below or send me an email.


December 2009

7 Responses

  1. Very interesting thoughts. Your point about how "kids are not comfortable in the presence of powerless “wimpy” adults" seems very relevant to many teachers. Unfortunately, I see many teachers who seem very dis-empowered and even disinterested in exercising decision making power – other than imposing what they're told to on kids.

  2. Thanks, Chunga. Do you suppose the distinterest is a character trait or result of years of accepting the role of victim, underdog, devoted public servant, passive citizen, etc??? Deb

  3. Thoughtful piece. As a long time community college teacher, I have watched as community colleges have moved farther and farther away from their democratic mission towards a mission focused on job training. Sadly the Obama administration's AGI has only intensified the idea of the community college as a site for job training and community students NOT as students but as "workers."

  4. Thanks, Debbie, for this piece. Democracy in a school works best, (and perhaps only) when there exists a set of principles people accept in order to participate. It's like a constitution. That set of principles is best determined by the people themselves, and we are at risk whenever "downtown" or the state capital or the federal government defines the principles. I value hearing their ideas and want to understand their thinking. But I want to leave it up to the school community to decide what to accept, what to change, what to reject and what to add. But alas, from where I sit, there is every obstacle placed in the way of living this out.

  5. As a NYC high school parent, and a supervisor of student teachers in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, I can see the effects of mayoral control on children, teachers and other living things. This mayor has no tolerance for dissent, witness his firing of his own education advisers when they disagreed. Now, with no buffer of former school districts or regions, some principals are banding together into coalitions to provide some protection against mayoral control.Good news, there are schools, like the Institute for Collaborative Studies, that are surviving and doing well for their students, families and teachers, in spite of it all.

  6. "And adults who are always having to say, “I didn't decide that, so don't blame me” are actively promoting a mindset which runs in direct conflict with the environment best suited to learning. It also substantially undercuts the desire of the young to grow up (and be powerful), and their respect for their teachers."Susan Ohanian calls this "The Larry King defense" – see:

  7. Deborah,Maybe the teachers know that it's nearly impossible to change a school's environment from where they sit. They make no decisions as everything is left up to administrators who are constantly threatened by funding cuts. Many people dealing with a huge loss of control like that will end up taking the "It wasn't me" defense, because what other defense is there? You could try to shake things up, but what if you get fired? I know so many teachers with master's degrees who are working as glorified secretaries because there are no teaching jobs. The teachers are being conditioned just like their students: Sit down, shut up, and do what you're told.

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