Thursday, September 10, 2015

Strikes and Democracy

Last night I was asked on twitter if I'm embarrassed by the striking Seattle teachers.

Shouldn't I be? My position on charters has been pretty clear, and recently I've been talking about my support for the Washington court ruling that charters are unconstitutional. I've been exceptionally clear that I believe charters, as currently practiced, are undemocratic in part because they are not run by an elected board and are therefor unaccountable to the voters and taxpayers.

I believe the implication (twitter's 140 characters depend a lot on implication) was that if I believe in the swellness of an elected school board, should I not also believe that teachers are obliged to let that elected school board be their guide and not get all unruly with strikes and stuff?

The answer is no, I don't, but the challenge is to articulate why, because my critic is correct in suggesting there might be an inconsistency there. I don't think so. Let's see if I can explain.

How is a government supposed to work?

We regularly conflate the ideas of how a government is put in place, and how it functions once there.

A monarch could inherit the throne, but once on it, be scrupulous about listening to all voices and supporting the rights of all people. A leader could be put in place by a legitimate election and begin behaving like a tyrant once in office. An elected group could meet in secret and never reveal their processes to the public.

We like democracy because as processes to put officials in place go, it seems the most naturally inclined to be open and inclusive. But the fact that it's democratically put in place doesn't guarantee that a group functions in an open and inclusive way.

Democracy is messy

The openness and inclusiveness are just as important as the electing, because that's part of where accountability comes from. It's not just that you have to stand for election every few years-- it's that every time you sit down to meet about your elected position, any member of the public who wants to can come and tell you what they think.

School boards (and city councils and congress) don't always love this part, and will sometimes try to bend the law to get around it. That's why we have things like sunshine laws-- because a democratic process of election is not enough to insure a democratic process of operation.

Democracy in action bothers lots of folks, specifically the same folks who hate it when the pictures in the living room are hung in a disorganized hodge-podge and one of them is tilted. Democracy in action is messy, noisy and inefficient. It ties our fate to the fates of Those People. And it unleashes a variety of contesting contrasting contentious forces.

In other words, if you think that democracy is when we elect a bunch of people and then just sit back and leave them alone while they decide whatever they decide, you are mistaken. American democracy in particular is designed so that the majority can't just force the minority to shut up.

Democracy is not a boisterous campaign followed by an election followed by blissful, compliant silence.

Democracy and Pressure Points

Once a group (such as a school board) is elected, they have to start functioning at the intersection of many different interests. Taxpayers. Parents. Teachers. Local government. And on any given issue, the clash of interests may become vocal and even harsh. In this way, democracy provides a means test for how much folks care. Are you really concerned about how much kale is served in the cafeteria? Are you willing to give up an evening to go complain to the board? To do it several times? To call and write and walk with a protest sign? Each escalation helps the board answer the question, "Just how much do people really care about this?"

So parents come and stand at line at a board meeting to make their point. Taxpayers write letters to the editors and hold demonstrations. And teachers, occasionally, go on strike. Because that's how they show a board just how important the issue is. The elected officials, because they have to conduct their business in plain sight, have to hear about it.

See, accountability of elected officials doesn't just mean that every so many years they must stand for election. It means that all the time in between they must spend listening to their constituents, reading what they say, and feeling whatever pressure those constituents can bring to bear on them.

Democracy and CEOs

The CEO model of leadership hates all of this. The CEO model says you get one genius visionary leader-guy, and then set things up so that nobody can interfere with him as he implements his vision. Depending on his political leanings, he may be presented as someone who has only the best interests of the poor and the downtrodden at heart-- but the poor and the downtrodden don't get to tell him how they think he should do his job.

There are arguments to be made for this model in certain settings. But it is not democracy.

Democracy and Dollars

Our challenge as a nation has become the free flow of money into the process-- not just the election process, but the operating process. Money gets some people extra attention. Charter fans have been quick to point out that the judge who ruled against charters has taken money from unions (all the law would allow-- about $1,900). But of course the law that he thwarted was passed in Washington with the help of millions and millions of dollars in financing from billionaires (including some from out of state). Money gets in the way of an open and inclusive process.

Democracy and Charters

So my problem with charter governance is that it is democratic in neither election nor operation, and that effectively means that they are accountable to nobody.

Charter fans will argue that they are accountable to authorizers, and in some states must actually hit test result targets to stay in business. I am not impressed. Hitting test scores is a nearly-useless metric for determining whether a school is working or not. Do parents complain because Junior didn't score high enough on the Big Standardized Test? Certainly not as often as the express concern about learning, grades, nurturing environment, positive atmosphere, sports, etc etc etc. Parents have hundreds of concerns, and in most current charter arrangements, they can communicate those concerns to nobody.

They can't start any conversation with, "I voted for you..." and they certainly can't go speak out at a public board meeting. They can't ask questions about finances and where the dollars are going. And the list of things parents can't do is nothing compared to the list of undoable things for taxpayers who fund the school, but don't send students there. The message from charters to taxpayers is, "Give us your money, but don't ever EVER try to talk to us about anything. Ever."

Did I Mention the Mess

Schools are public institutions set up to meet the needs of the community. As such, they are required to respond to a zillion different constituencies with a double-zillion priorities and concerns. That means the operation of school districts will always be a tug of war with a million ropes, a balancing act that never reaches equilibrium. That means that some districts will be, at times, out of balance or the site of fairly brutal "discussions" about how to fix things.

The only alternative is to find ways to shut some voices out of the conversation, and while in the worst of times that can become the public school district path (mayoral control, anyone), that disempowerment is Plan A for charters. "Just sit out in the hall. Shut up. We'll be in this locked room deciding what's best for you."

The problem of democracy is that everybody gets the power to be part of the discussion. That's why we insist on educating everybody-- so that the discussion won't get too clogged with people who don't know what they're talking about.

There have always been people who thought the solution for democracy was to only allow a voice to people who deserve one. That's not democracy. It ignores our foundational documents (governments get their power from the consent of the governed). Yes, if everyone has a voice, then sometimes those voices get angry and raised and all activisty. That's part of democracy. The alternatives that we periodically consider may be neater and quieter and more orderly, but they all involve stripping citizens of their voice and their power, and that is just fundamentally wrong.


  1. Although I now live in California (any my teaching career has been here), I was born in Seattle, and have lots of family in Seattle, some of whom are teachers, others of whom are active, involved parents, and I have to say I'm unabashedly PROUD of those Seattle teachers on strike. Their demands include guaranteed recess for elementary students (because schools vary widely and especially in poorer schools kids have had less and less time reserved for play), reducing the emphasis on standardized testing in both students' lives and teacher evaluations, establishing committees at each school tasked with addressing disparate discipline fairly and effectively (a response to the fact that African American students are suspended at a much higher rate), reducing the untenable workloads that many counselors and support professionals have so that they can actually provide students with counseling and support, and yes, a raise for teachers who haven't seen a cost of living increase in 6 years, while the cost of living in Seattle has risen dramatically.In other words, the teachers are combining their voices to insist that their knowledge and expertise as trained and experienced professionals should in fact influence policies that affect students' learning conditions. There's nothing selfish about them. The big business paper and billionaires are against them (and the propaganda against them ignores every demand except the raise), but so far parents and community members seem to be mostly supporting the teachers. To me, it's an example of exactly what teachers' unions should be doing. Here's a link to some info about their demands:

  2. "governments get their power from the consent of the governed" except in Chicago, apparently:

    Christine Langhoff

    1. Wow. Lincoln Park gets a new annex when other schools are more overcrowded. Meanwhile, they just want Dyett citizens to go away.