Jason Stanley, a philosophy professor at Yale University, has a powerful essay in today’s NYTimes. The title, “Detroit’s Drought of Democracy” could just as easily been “Efficiency Undercuts Democracy”, for his primary argument is that the decision of MI lawmaker to appoint an “emergency manager” with dictatorial powers is based on the premise that efficiency can only be achieved by assigning unquestioned authority to one individual. While there are other factors at play (e.g. the racism that exists in MI that is manifest in the demographics of communities in that state), Stanley focuses on the creed that efficiency is good… and shatters it completely. Stanley uses the emergency manager’s decision to shut off water to Detroit residents as the example of how efficiency does not result in public well being… but the same logic applies to the takeover of public schools, as noted in my comments to several quotes I gleaned from the essay:
The discretion inherent in executive power is being exercised to maximize financial efficiency. But there is no obvious connection between financial efficiency and the public good.
The use of part-time staff by McDonalds and Walmart are financially efficient… but not serving the public well. The practice of inversion as noted in earlier posts is financially efficient… but not at all connected to the public good. Privatized schools that hire untrained and low wage teachers to prepare students to do well on standardized tests are financially efficient… but do nothing to help the public good.
The 19th-century French political philosopher Benjamin Constant worried that appeals to the common good were often not made for democratic purposes, but rather served to “supply weapons and pretexts to all kinds of tyranny.” One may suspect Michigan’s appeal to financial efficiency has a similar purpose.
The “reformers” civil rights arguments are an appeal to the common good that are used to justify the privatization of public schools and the governance of those schools by shareholders instead of elected school board.
Singapore is a state that values efficiency above all. But by no stretch of the imagination is Singapore a democratic state. A society ruled by technocrats who make decisions on behalf of the masses is, since Plato’s time, regarded as a system that is opposed to democracy, rather than one exemplifying it.
The technology CEOs value the wisdom of technocrats over the wisdom of practitioners and virtually all CEOs value the fast decision-making that comes from top-down leadership over the messy, plodding deliberations that are a part of democracy.
This is not to deny that the Detroit emergency manager’s policies are efficient for some people. For example, they are efficient for the banks that are being paid back for what look to be ethically dubious loans, as well as for those who stand to benefit from the potentially huge profits of privatizing one of the world’s great freshwater supplies at a time of increasing global water scarcity.
The banks may not benefit from the privatization of schools, but there ARE huge profits that could be made from making schools “financially efficient”… and when the “financially efficient” profit motive trumps the public good, our country is wasting one the world’s greatest untapped resources: our students.
It is simply no surprise at all that a democratic state can be less efficient than some nondemocratic states. In a democracy, someone who would be a good doctor is allowed to be a bad lawyer. Autonomy cannot be subsumed to efficiency in a democracy.
A democratic state accepts some messiness and some inefficiency as a trade off for allowing everyone to have stake in determining the direction the government is taking. And here is the most telling quote:
The chief values of democracy are freedom and equality. The willingness to subsume freedom to claims of efficiency is one sign of an undemocratic culture.
I drew on this quote in making a comment I wrote, noting the parallel between what is happening in Detroit and what is happening in public education:
This article describes the rationale used by “reformers” to privatize public education. By using standardized tests as the basis for determining which schools and districts are “failing” states proclaimed the existence of an “emergency”. The states and/or mayors then took the authority to govern schools away from locally elected officials and shifted it to mayors and governors many of whom, in turn, gave authority to unelected shareholders of privatized schools. Jason Stanley writes: “The chief values of democracy are freedom and equality. The willingness to subsume freedom to claims of efficiency is one sign of an undemocratic culture.” The willingness to ignore inequality is another sign… and our decision to ignore the impact of poverty on schools and undercutting locally elected is corroding our democracy and not helping our children.
If taking power away from locally elected officials (e.g. school boards) made a difference, Newark NJ, Chester and Philadelphia PA, and Chicago IL schools would be outperforming all schools in the country. By ignoring the inequality of wealth between those urban areas and the surrounding suburbs and exurbs and emphasizing the need for “financial efficiency” we’ve delivered two blows to “the chief values of democracy”.
Andrew Ross Sorkin, an NYTimes business writer, posted an article in today’s Dealbook section describing the huge profits banks made by advising corporations on the inversion process, whereby they declare themselves as based in another country to avoid paying US taxes. As noted in yesterday’s blog post amplifying Paul Krugman’s article, this has a major impact on publicly operated institutions like schools. To amplify that for NYTimes readers I offered the following comment:
I’m not a tax expert… but here’s my understanding:
We– the taxpayers— bailed out these “to big to fail” banks and now they are receiving huge sums of money to help large corporations avoid paying their taxes. This, in turn, creates a “crisis” in the government revenue stream that requires the privatization of things like roads, prisons, hospitals and schools to “save the taxpayers” money. Oh… and as a by-product this “crisis” gives the shareholders of those NEW private enterprises more wealth. I, for one, do not believe this is good for our country.
To paraphrase a quote from the 60s, if you aren’t disturbed by these shenanigans you are not paying attention!
For decades public schools have borne the costs required to provide special education students with a free and appropriate education (FAPE) in the “…least restrictive environment.” For most students with special needs this is not at all problematic. Special education teachers typically have the training required to develop and implement an individual education plan (IEP) for the vast majority of students and school boards can either hire staff or contract for related service providers to support students with specialized services like occupational therapy, speech therapy, and psychological support. Some students, however, have complicated needs that school districts cannot meet and, in those cases, the school district is required to provide the tuition costs and related costs for that child’s education. In most cases the costs for these programs are at least three times the per pupil costs incurred by an “average” student… and six digit costs have been in play for at least 20 years. In the five states where I served as Superintendent, the State government realized that it was difficult to impossible for a local district to absorb these additional costs to education the extraordinary students who required special programs and so they paid the majority of the costs, with some states providing as much as 95% reimbursement. This made sense since many of the students requiring these kinds of programs were formerly housed in state institutions that closed, sending the students back to their local communities.
In a majority of these out-of-district placements the student’s learning problems are severe and self-evident and both the parents and schools identify a mutually agreeable program and work collaboratively to develop a plan to provide transportation to and from the locale. In other cases, however, the districts assert that they can provide the free and appropriate education for the child in the district and the parents sue the district to seek the placement they desire. Districts are then placed in a position of determining whether to hire their own attorney to argue their case in front of an arbitrator and/or judge or to cede to the parents and pay for the placements themselves. This is often a lose-lose predicament for school districts. If they hire an attorney they can incur high legal fees that are often not reimbursable and, if they lose, they would be required to pay the legal fees of the parents. By “fighting” a placement districts can also engender ill-will in the parent community who will often rally around the parent whose child is being”denied the education they need”. If they don’t hire an attorney, they run the risk of setting a precedent that will require additional out of district costs and, possibly, scrutiny from the State who is often bearing the majority of the costs. Another complication is that districts are bound by confidentiality agreements, making it impossible for them to give a full public explanation of the nature of the complicated problems students have and/or the steps they have taken to ensure that each and every placement is warranted. Finally, the biggest problem with this whole placement issue is that it creates a situation where an individual student is viewed as a “cost-benefit” problem and not a programmatic one. It depersonalizes the student and increases the conflict among adults.
In my experience the largest percentage of contentious placement cases deal with emotionally handicapped students. In some cases these students are coping adequately in the school setting but acting out in the community or at home and, as a result, parents are seeking 24/7 oversight. There are many schools that offer therapies that are contrary to those acceptable to schools (e.g. wilderness expeditions that intentionally isolate students) or are unproven (e.g. animal husbandry programs). Some of these schools counsel parents on how to get districts to fund placements ex post facto and some even have de facto in house attorneys who assist them in “recruiting” students.
For years administrators have lamented this system that, in the end, is cost driven and also lamented the fact that these mandated costs for special education are driving budgets higher and, in some cases, squeezing out funds for non-special needs students and programs. Yesterday’s NYTimes and today’s Ohio.com breathlessly reported on the costs districts incurred as a result of these out of district placements, each report implicitly emphasizing the impact on taxpayers while glossing over the complicated background outlined above. While it is helpful to bring these costs to light, it would be extremely helpful if the reporting gave some context. Unfortunately no effort has been made to tease out the marginal cost/student that results from the federal mandate that all children receive a free and appropriate education. Worse, the media have never emphasized the impact of the Federal government’s broken promise to provide 40% of the costs to education special education students and seldom reported on the impact on local funding when a state legislature decides to reduce their share of special education costs. MAYBE these articles could set the stage for that kind of reporting in the future.