Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Disrespect for the public

One of the hallmarks of twenty-first century education reform has been a contempt for participatory democracy, particularly at the local level. Communities can’t be trusted to make the “right” policy choices, and must have good choices imposed on them by people who know better, like Bill Gates or Walmart.

Most of the people I talk to in Iowa City are no fans of that kind of “reform.” But I’ve been disappointed by how quickly some Iowa Citians resort to that same kind of argument when it serves their own policy preferences.

In the discussions of our district’s diversity policy and its long-term facilities plan, some people have been so certain that they know the “right thing to do” that they don’t care whether the public has been persuaded to agree. School board members have been urged to “stand up to the public.” People have asserted that the board will have to disregard the public if any progress is to be made. People have asserted that school closures will have to happen whether the public wants them or not. People have said that the board should worry not about what the public wants but about “what the district needs” – as defined, of course, by whoever happens to be speaking.

I’m not arguing that a public board should make all of its decisions via pollster. Everyone understands that, on most issues, we’ve entrusted the school board to study the alternatives and use its best judgment to reach a decision. Some issues are important enough to people, though, that even the board recognizes the need to make special efforts to seek public input. On the facilities issue, the board’s steering committee did just that, repeatedly inviting public input and inducing hundreds of people to attend three-hour-long workshops to familiarize themselves with the issue and express their views.

The participants at those workshops made it clear – by an almost two-to-one margin – that they preferred a plan that didn’t close any schools. Given the lengthy workshop process, and the fact that the committee did everything it could to nudge people toward plans that would close schools, it’s no longer possible to argue that people would support school closings if only they had more information. Nor is this a situation, as some have argued, where the public “wants everything” and so the board has to “be the parent.” In fact, the hundreds of people who attended the workshops were presented with several choices, each of which clearly described its advantages and disadvantages, and they decidedly chose one over the others.

In that situation, it’s not so easy to be dismissive of public preferences. Any argument that the board should close schools, regardless of what the public wants, now raises some hard questions. Were the community workshops just for show? If board candidates don’t advocate school closings when they campaign, and then disregard public opinion about school closings once in office, how can the public control its own school system? Do we have a public school system, or not? When there’s a disagreement over what the community needs, who should be the final authority: the public, or you?


Contrary said...

I wish the closing of Roosevelt had created this much uproar.

Sara Barron said...

Chris, thanks for keeping this conversation moving. I know that it's hard to be absolutely clear when seeking input, how that feedback will be used. But people will simply stop caring if they put energy and thought into giving meaningful feedback, only to feel as though it was disregarded.

Chris said...

Contrary -- Thanks for commenting! I really wonder what the school board learned from that experience.

Chris said...

Sara -- Thanks for commenting! On the whole, I think people are actually reasonable about understanding that the board can't please everyone, that any long-term plan might have to change as circumstances change, and that the details of any given plan are not set in stone. But the issue of whether to close schools is not a detail; opposing it was the main reason many people attended those workshops. Given that there are workable (not perfect) scenarios that don't close schools, I'm not sure how the board could justify ignoring the clear preference that people had on that issue at the workshops.

In any event, I agree that people will think twice about ever participating again if they feel that the process was just for show, that minds were made up in advance, and that their input was disregarded.

mariaconz said...

Chris, the school board learned nothing from public feedback. They don't listen. You said, correctly, that the school board is "a bubble."

Time for a clean sweep!

It is a form of disrespect and even contempt to ignore unanimous public opinion. And yet Tuyet Dorau dares to tell Phil Hemingway, a school board candidate, to show the school board some respect?

The school board doesn't show its constituents any respect. Respect is a two-way street, Tuyet. To have a friend you have to be a friend. And to get respect you have to show respect.