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?