BoardBuzz has been pretty quiet about the turmoil in the political world, but we’re making up for lost time with some lengthy ruminating today. In the lead-up to tomorrow’s elections, the commentariat has been spilling much ink over the possibility of a “resurgent center” in American politics. Some examples:
The number of independent voters has risen from 14 percent in 2002 to 17 percent this year, reports American University’s Center for the Study of the American Electorate in this AP story. Syndicated columnist David Broder speculates about divided government here. His colleague E.J. Dionne speculates here about the “rise of the radical center.”
Then there’s this from “What’s the Matter with the Democrats,” a Washington Post review of two books about the party that knows how to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory:
These days, both parties have abandoned the middle ground. Republicans don’t care about it, and Democrats aren’t talented enough to find it. At the top, the ascendant wing of the party is not populist,’ [author Thomas B.] Edsall writes. ‘It is elitist.’
BoardBuzz can’t help but wonder whether the battle cry of the raging moderates amounts to a lot of wishful thinking. We think education policy could prove to be a useful bellwether—but not in the way most commentators think.
For real centrism, try localism
Every now and then, some brave soul ventures to give utterance to the heretical notion that local control in education still has value in 21st century America. Three recent examples bear highlighting.
First, we turn to Rural Matters, the new blog of the Rural School and Community Trust. For an example of why this is another education blog worth reading, check out this terrific posting on governance by Marty Strange, the Trust’s policy director. Here’s an excerpt from his description of the relationship between the “most ideological liberal and conservative advocates of standards based reform”:
Both also embrace, with carefully scripted tag lines, the idea that parental involvement is key to success. For liberal reformers, parents are a nuisance; for conservative reformers, they are a convenient excuse. But on one thing both agree, though neither will say a word about it. And that is that communities—more precisely, local electorates—have no rightful role in education. Liberal and conservative reformers alike believe local boards of education are an obstacle to reform, and they secretly think that the very idea of voting on who should run a school was a dangerous idea from the start.
The defining characteristic of standards based reform—and the glue that binds its liberal and conservative elements—is the elitism that distrusts the public with decision-making in its own schools. And the central contradiction of reformers is that while they claim to believe that every child can learn to the same high standards, they apparently don’t believe every child can learn enough to become an adult who can run a good school, democratically.
Similar themes sounded here by Deborah Meier on the blog of the Forum for Education and Democracy, sent to us courtesy of the PEN weekly newsblast:
Reformers who urge us to drop the pretense of a local connection between schools and their communities lead us into dangerous territory. Reformers of all stripes sometimes forget that the genius of our democracy is in sustaining the tensions and balances between various sources of power—including the power of us “ordinary” people. Think about how, by ignoring this notion of the public, those closest to children, their teachers and parents, have less and less direct influence on our schools. Or how in the name of professionalism, expertise, and efficiency we have narrowed the public’s involvement with its schools. For example, when I was born there were 300,000 school boards—one in virtually every little community that housed a school. Today with far more schools serving vastly more children for far more years, we have less than 15,000 boards and the most have very little power.
But if we cut off all those at the bottom from the decisions that are most vital because we think them ignorant or foolish, we have undermined the very concept of democracy which rests on tolerating what appears often ignorant and foolish: the voice of “the people.”
And for an especially full-throated reassertion of this unfashionable sentiment, check out the very readable amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court in the Seattle and Louisville diversity cases submitted by NSBA, the American Association of School Administrators, the National Association of Secondary School Principals, the National Association of Elementary School Principals, the National Association of State Boards of Education, the Association of School Business Officials, Phi Delta Kappa International, and the Horace Mann League.
The brief expands on the concurring opinion in the Seattle case by a conservative icon, 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Alex Kozinski, who wrote that Seattle’s student assignment plan “gives the American melting pot a healthy stir without benefiting or burdening any particular group,” and added, “There is much to be said for returning primacy on matters of educational policy to local officials.”
The K-12 coalition’s statement of support for local diversity efforts won’t thrill the most conservative folks out there. Those on the left aren’t all that wild about a conservative argument like this, either. The words “local control” don’t exactly have a noble history when it comes to this issue. But read the brief. This is not your father’s local control.
It’s no accident that the pragmatic and centrist voices in the cases should be those of the school advocates. It’s part of a wider national pattern.
Whither K-12 policy?
Curiously, what seems to pass for “moderation” in education policy nowadays really amounts to collusion between the far wings. As Marty Strange suggests, these people do have a lot in common. Contempt for local voices. The unassailable conviction that they know better what schools should be doing, down to the budget line item, than those who actually run schools. And, of course, a degree of influence with power brokers that those who occupy the boring center can only envy.
Our polarized, gerrymandered, headline-panicked, and interest group-bankrolled federal and state politicians do still seem pretty complacent about closing their tin ears to local concerns over the endless decrees imposed from on high, from No Child Left Behind, to inadequate funding formulae, to the more ill-conceived charter school policies, to the new-mandate-of-the-week, to the marginalization of local school boards. But hey, they think, the Beltway Left and the Beltway Right agree on this latest way to stick it to school districts, so it must be “moderate.”
The great irony in all this is that local school communities—superintendents, administrators, teachers, parents, students, and most of all, school board members—have, as a rule, vastly more centrist tendencies than either the more influential voices on the left who quietly deride them as self-interested and inept bumpkins or the more influential voices on the right who dismiss them as union patsies bent on advancing left-wing agendas and preserving “monopolies.”
So when it comes to education policy, if the wonk and commentator world wants to know next year whether tomorrow’s elections really resulted in a resurgent center, BoardBuzz delicately suggests they’ll need to look in the right place. The reauthorization of NCLB will be one big indicator. But the proof of “centrism” will not lie in more comfy consensus between the far left and the far right. Instead, look to the boring—and locally grounded—center.