Home > Uncategorized > A Dissident’s Impractical Advocacy for Democracy

A Dissident’s Impractical Advocacy for Democracy

January 2, 2016

Roberto Armstrong’s New Years Day article in Dissident Voice, Bringing Democracy to Our K-12 Schools offers an analysis of public education that is full of radical tropes that overlooks the biggest obstacle to democratization of schools and falls way short of offering practical and realistic ways of making public education truly democratic.

According to Mr. Armstrong, who is a veteran of both K-12 and community college teaching, three groups “…are primarily responsible for the operation of our K-12 school systems“: school boards, teachers organizations, and administrators. He presents each group as more self-serving, more powerful, and less democratic than they really are and concludes that the elimination of these groups and a movement toward the operation of schools as opposed to school districts would increase democracy and eliminate the problems he sees with the existing “… undemocratic, pyramidal, unequal, costly, and ultimately irresponsible public educational structures”  that are the “… fundamental component of school failure“.

Mr. Armstrong’s solution is to replace the existing structure with one that eliminates the three forces that control schools today; provides uniformly high and equal salaries for teachers that are funded at the STATE level; governs each school with a democratically elected “school council” comprised of teachers and residents who reside within the attendance boundaries of the school; and operates under the guidance of a state department of education that is committed to a series of high-minded outcomes including the “development of frameworks fostering cooperation on all matters of common interest between autonomous schools of the same level as well as between grade school and high school levels and between high school and college levels.”

Mr. Armstrong’s analysis is flawed because he overlooks the reality that our K-12 schools are only superficially controlled by boards, unions, and administrators. Based on my 35 years as a public school administrator, 29 of them working for elected school boards and with teachers’  organizations, the three major forces controlling schools are the public’s conception of schools, taxpayers, and parents.

  • The public’s conception of schools: As noted repeatedly in this blog— indeed the overarching theme of this blog— changes in the way schools are operated will only occur when the public changes it minds about how schools should operate… and for now the public still believes schools should function the same way as they have since the early 1920s when we began batching students by age-based “grade levels” and expected them to progress through those “grade levels” at a uniform rate. This notion of schools operating like a factory reinforces the pyramidal and anti-democratic ways a business operates as it seeks ways to run the factory more efficiently. One other public conception is that schools are local institutions that should be governed by and funded differentially based on the desires of the local taxpayers… which leads to the second controlling group.
  • Taxpayers: For better or worse, public schools are funded by taxes… and since schools are seen as local institutions the current funding structure of schooling is based on local taxes. In virtually all cases this means property taxes and that means that communities with high tax bases or communities with parents who are willing to pay high taxes get far superior education than those communities who are unwilling or unable to pay higher taxes. This leads to the third controlling group.
  • Parents: Engaged parents want the best schooling possible for their children and are willing to pay whatever price is necessary to obtain that education. Thus some parents dig deeply to send their children to prestigious private schools or dig deeply to buy expensive homes in communities that fund their public schools. These parents tend to believe in the existing economic and education system that has identified them as “winners” and are committed to retaining that system. These parents vote to provide funds their local schools need to hire and retain excellent teachers and build and maintain well-appointed facilities but are often resistant to raising funds to provide the same level of educational opportunity to their neighbors in less affluent communities.

Mr. Armstrong acknowledges that his idealistic solutions requires “…a public that at present doesn’t exist; namely, a significant number of citizens who are committed to creating a democratic school system to take the place of the present undemocratic one, a school system that aims to empower all our children in every area of creative human endeavor.”  

But this statement underscores the main point Mr. Armstrong misses: we already HAVE a democratic system in place: the board members are elected democratically, the state legislators are elected democratically, and the governors are elected democratically. What our voters think they want are efficient factory schools that operate at the lowest cost possible for their children. Sadly the ideas Mr. Armstrong proposes will end up at the same place. The only way to change public education is to change the public’s mind about how schools should operate… to move beyond factory schools.

%d bloggers like this: