Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Election Day thoughts

Actually, here in Iowa City, we had our school board election a couple of months ago, before this blog existed. (Today we vote for City Council, in an election that appears headed for an unusually lopsided result.) But today seems like as good a day as any to comment on the school board election, and on school board elections generally.

School board elections here have always seemed somewhat mysterious to me. I read the voter guides and candidate questionnaires, and I find it virtually impossible to detect any differences at all between the candidates. It is as if each candidate is trying as hard as possible not to reveal his or her actual opinions about any issues, for fear of losing the vote of someone, somewhere. I find myself trying to read between the lines -- to detect subtle differences in emphasis that might reveal, to those who know the code, something about the candidate's true leanings. It reminds me of the way Kremlinologists used to scrutinize photographs of Brezhnev and his circle for tips about the otherwise inscrutable workings of the Soviet hierarchy.

Once in a while, the voters are so concerned about an issue that the candidates cannot avoid discussing it. This year, the issue was redistricting -- in particular, how and when to redraw the boundaries between our two high schools, our middle schools, and our elementary schools. In fact, last night there was a district-wide forum on the issue that drew 160 people.

I won't deny that there are important issues involved in drawing boundaries between school districts. Still, there is some irony here. The teachers, and even the principals, now have so little autonomy over what goes on in their classrooms that the classroom experiences of a west-side fourth-grader look more like those of an east-side fourth-grader than they ever have. The curriculum, the books, the schedule, the goals, the educational philosophy, and the underlying assumptions about how kids learn are the same everywhere, because they are decided centrally -- often not even by the school board, but by the state or even the federal government. It is as if the most central aspects of educational policy have been taken off the table in school board elections. As a result, the major issue in our election was about where to draw the boundaries between these increasingly similar schools.

One unfortunate result is that voters then focus on the other ways in which the schools differ -- for example, which school gets more resources, and which school has more at-risk kids, and which school has more wealthy families, etc. The debate is funneled toward these particularly divisive issues and away from more fundamental questions about what the goals and methods of education should be.

I am largely skeptical about proposals for "school choice," though I hope to explore the topic at some point on this blog. But it's hard for me to believe that nationwide uniformity in educational practice is a good thing. There is a chance, after all, that the prevailing assumptions about what is good for children are, in fact, wrong. Should we put all our eggs in one basket, in a kind of nationwide experiment on our kids? I'm much more comfortable with a less centralized system, one that allows different places to make different choices, and one that treats teachers as professionals who are in the best position to know what works in their classrooms, rather than as actors reading from a centrally-written script.

If educational policy were decided locally, school board elections would actually hinge on those educational issues. As it is, no election hinges on educational issues. I have strong feelings about educational policy, but even I will admit that, when I vote for Congress or for President, many other issues are more important to me. By federalizing educational policy, we have basically taken educational issues away from the voters. Is that what a country that cared about education would do?

..How can I comment?