Friday, January 25, 2013

Cracks in the wall?

From Gov. Jerry Brown’s State of the State speech yesterday in California:
The laws that are in fashion demand tightly constrained curricula and reams of accountability data. All the better if it requires quiz-bits of information, regurgitated at regular intervals and stored in vast computers. Performance metrics, of course, are invoked like talismans. Distant authorities crack the whip, demanding quantitative measures and a stark, single number to encapsulate the precise achievement level of every child.

We seem to think that education is a thing—like a vaccine—that can be designed from afar and simply injected into our children. But as the Irish poet, William Butler Yeats said, “Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire.”

This year, as you consider new education laws, I ask you to consider the principle of Subsidiarity. Subsidiarity is the idea that a central authority should only perform those tasks which cannot be performed at a more immediate or local level. In other words, higher or more remote levels of government, like the state, should render assistance to local school districts, but always respect their primary jurisdiction and the dignity and freedom of teachers and students.

Subsidiarity is offended when distant authorities prescribe in minute detail what is taught, how it is taught and how it is to be measured. I would prefer to trust our teachers who are in the classroom each day, doing the real work – lighting fires in young minds.

My 2013 Budget Summary lays out the case for cutting categorical programs and putting maximum authority and discretion back at the local level—with school boards.
I don’t know how much Brown can back those words up; there’s a limit to how much local control you can allow if you don’t opt out of No Child Left Behind. But it will be interesting to see how it plays out.

I think the bipartisan consensus favoring centrally-driven school “reform” is finally starting to break down. It is increasingly associated with polarizing right-wing governors like Scott Walker and Rick Snyder. Reformer-in-chief Michelle Rhee is increasingly identified as a “right-wing” figure. (Charles Pierce, a blogger revered on the left, takes on Rhee here.) The Democratic Party activists who populate DailyKos see school reform (accurately) as an attack on unionism. I’d love to see the approval ratings of the standardized testing industry. And now the governor of the largest state in the union is declining to follow the crowd.

It’s got a ways to go. (Blogger Atrios recently tweeted “a liberal member of congress spoke to me about michelle rhee as if she was jesus.”) But if large parts of one party’s base start turning against the top-down “reform” project, how long before “local control” becomes the safest, most people-pleasing position?

Previous post on Jerry Brown here.

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