I posted last week about some of my doubts about the superintendent’s recommended elementary school boundary changes. But there’s another, more basic objection to the proposed maps: there’s no reason to believe that they have the support of the community.
If watching national education policy for the last ten years should teach a person anything, it’s skepticism toward top-down “reforms.” From the creators of No Child Left Behind to Arne Duncan to Bill Gates to proponents of the Common Core, today’s education “reformers” have one thing in common: they’re so sure they’re right that they don’t care whether the affected communities agree. As they impose their policies on local school districts, regardless of whether the people in those districts want them, they often use the most high-minded rhetoric. When the people who want to privatize education and close schools in impoverished neighborhoods—inevitably citing studies about “student achievement”—tell you that their cause is “the civil rights issue of our time,” it’s a good moment to be skeptical.
The proposal to enact major boundary changes to meet the district’s diversity goals, largely by sending kids from low-income families to schools farther from their homes, has some unfortunate parallels to other top-down policies. I believe its supporters have the best of intentions (unlike some of the obviously profit-driven participants in the national ed reform debate). But there’s no indication that supporters of this approach have persuaded the community of its wisdom, or even that they’ve persuaded the low-income families who are its supposed beneficiaries and who will bear the brunt of the disruption. The board shouldn’t impose a change of this magnitude if the community doesn’t support it.
I’d feel differently if the current board members had run for office advocating major diversity-driven boundary changes, but they didn’t. (On that, more in my next post.) Nor has the community “engagement” process demonstrated support for that approach. At the community workshops, the district pointedly instructed the public to take the diversity policy’s numerical goals as a given, asking the participants only for input on how to use redistricting to meet the goals, not on whether to do that. It’s almost as if the district learned its lesson from the facilities workshops: if you don’t want to know the answer, don’t ask the question.
I sometimes hear, in response, that “you can’t please everyone,” but that’s just fighting a straw man. Of course you can’t please everyone; no one is suggesting that every change has to be unanimous. Any redistricting is going to make some people unhappy. But that can’t justify imposing a change that doesn’t have the support of most of the broader community. It’s a big leap from “You can’t please everyone” to “So therefore we should adopt my ideas regardless of what the community wants.”
It is understandably tempting for people, even for those who consider themselves progressive, to impose their policies on the community when they have the chance, even without public support. But in the long run, that just legitimizes the kind of top-down government-by-elites that is hostile to progressive values (and to many strands of conservative values as well). If you’re against top-down governance only when you disagree with the policies, you’re not against top-down governance.
Everybody’s got a great idea. The best thing you can do for people, though, isn’t to impose your great idea on them. It’s to empower them democratically. Then try to win them over to your idea. I’m sure that in any community-driven system, many of my ideas would be voted down, but I’d trade all of my policy preferences for a school system that reflected the community’s values. I’d much rather put my kids’ education in the hands of the greater Iowa City community than in the hands of any set of people who think they know better.
Related posts here and here.