What If Self-Interest Doesn’t Explain Everything?

Dear Deborah,

I’m glad you brought up the topic of democracy. In future posts, I plan to explore the habits and attributes we hope to inculcate in our youthful, budding citizens, including a commitment to self-sufficiency. But today let’s continue the conversation about democratic governance of our public schools.

You and I have more in common than we might want to concede, in that we share a somewhat cynical view of politics. Namely, we see most political actors and institutions as acting out of self-interest. You, and many other liberals, are obsessed with “the rich,” worrying that they will buy elections and promote their own narrow interests (while becoming even richer in the process). I, and many other ed-reformers, am obsessed with the teachers’ unions and other “adult interest groups,” worrying that they will buy elections, run their own candidates, and promote their own narrow interests.

Yet look at what just happened in New York City: Neither the candidate of the rich nor the candidate of the unions won the Democratic primary. Bill de Blasio, untethered from both the 1 percent and organized labor, marched to an impressive victory. (Whether he actually becomes mayor depends, of course, on the November election.)

Maybe we both overestimate the clout of our respective boogeymen.

We also might want to consider that what we see as a clash of interests is really just a clash of ideology.

Consider this quote from Robert Samuelson, discussing lessons from the financial collapse of five years ago:

I concede: I’ve told this story before. It doesn’t take, because it blames faulty ideas more than crooks and scoundrels—the tempting targets of most narratives. But the accumulating evidence suggests that false ideas, not evil people, were the main culprits.

Let me admit that I long viewed “union bosses” as “evil people.” How could someone justify defending incompetent, or even abusive, teachers? Why wouldn’t they allow some modicum of meritocracy to seep into the teaching profession? How could they chain children to failing schools to which they would never send their own kids?

I look back on those attitudes and blush. To be sure, I still think it’s wrong to defend bad teachers and the policies that make them so hard to remove from the classroom. I still think it’s a mortal sin to confine kids in bad schools rather than giving them access to sound alternatives. And I still think that strong teachers’ unions make school improvement difficult to achieve. It’s notable that when we at the Fordham Institute studied teacher-union strength a year ago, we found few states with both strong unions and big gains in achievement. Competition is good, and it’s healthy that Democrats in particular now have a variety of education advocacy groups competing for their support, not just the unions.

But I no longer think that union leaders are “evil.” I disagree with their ideas. I know nothing about their character, though I suspect that all of us went into education because we wanted to make the world a better place.

So it is with the “billionaire’s boys club” that reform critics like to lambaste. Some common core opponents have argued that Bill Gates is out to further enrich himself by requiring schools to purchase more computers in order to give the common-core tests. This is a guy worth, what, $40 billion? And people really believe he’s out to make even more? (We at Fordham have been criticized by some on the right for taking Gates money in order to promote the common core. It’s funny that these same folks never complain about our Walton-funded efforts on behalf of school choice.)

So whatever the reason—self-interest, ideology, or just plain ego—now every major election, especially in urban centers, brings a clash of the titans: The unions (and their money) against school reformers (and their money). I don’t see this as undemocratic. If anything, this is more democratic than in the past, when the unions enjoyed near-hegemony over all things education. The unions can still elect the people who sit across the negotiating table with them—but only if the voters allow it.
Deborah, let me move to another issue related to the democratic governance of our schools.

I agree that something is lost when we “remove more and more power from teachers, parents, and communities to direct their schools.” This is why you and I both support charter schools, right? Because we believe in autonomous public schools where parents, teachers, and even students can create something special? Yet many reform critics—Diane Ravitch now chief among them—slap charter schools, apparently all charter schools, with the “privatization” label. (Less than a quarter of them are actually run by for-profit firms.)

Charter schools (and other forms of school choice) are essentially mechanisms to protect and promote the rights of minorities within a majoritarian democracy. Yes, just like in the Federalist papers. If the majority wants vanilla schools, charter laws allow a small minority to have access to chocolate instead. And a Fordham Institute study released last month demonstrates that most parents do, indeed, want vanilla in their education cone. (High-quality vanilla.) There is tremendous, even surprising, consensus about the most important attributes in a school, across all racial, socio-economic, and political groups: A strong core curriculum in reading and math, the development of problem-solving and critical thinking skills, and a focus on STEM.

Yet vanilla isn’t all they want. Once the basics are satisfied, some parents—we identified six niche groups—want something more. Art and music. A heavy emphasis on citizenship and leadership. Vocational training. Diversity.

Most school districts, for a hundred years, have told these parents who want something special, “Tough luck.” Even today, where I live in Montgomery County, Md., the range of choices available to parents is extremely limited. Yet across the border, in Washington, D.C., there’s a cornucopia of curricular diversity: Montessori schools. Language-immersion schools. A language-immersion school that uses Montessori! And on and on.

Why the difference? The District has a great charter law. Maryland does not. D.C. allows for parents in the minority to have access to what they want. Maryland does not.

Which is more “democratic”?

– Mike Petrilli

This article originally appeared on the Bridging Differences blog, where Mike Petrilli is debating Deborah Meier.

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