Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Local Control

States are increasingly telling cities what laws they may or may not pass. The most famous example may be North Carolina's HB-2, the notorious law that restricted bathroom access- but also, like laws passed in Alabama and other states, forbid cities to pass laws raising the minimum wage.

State legislatures are taking action to undo the choices of voters. North Carolina's legislature decided they were unhappy about the election for governor, so they stripped power from the office. And just this week, South Dakota's legislature is moving to throw out the law passed by the voters which would establish a host of ethics rules and oversight.

Throughout the nation, government is in the hands of the very rich, who since the advent of Citizens United have unbridled freedom to shop for the legislators who will provide the desired results. When the DeVos family couldn't convince the electorate to pass a voucher law or elect Dick DeVos governor, the billionaire family decided that it was time to just do an end run around the voters. If democratic local voter control won't provide the results you want, just circumvent it.

And what a week it has been. Herr Trump has declared that maybe he should send the feds into Chicago to clean things up. Government agencies, paid for with taxpayer dollars, have been forbidden to speak to those taxpayers. And we're getting a wall, courtesy of an executive order (that curious method by which Presidents get to pretend that they're actually the legislative branch and make laws).

And while Trump's declaration to launch an inquiry into election fraud may be related to a frail and tender ego, it may also make a handy first step toward extending the tools of voter suppression that have been steadily encroaching on voters over the past few years.

Charter schools and choice-- the good, the bad, and the ugly-- are perhaps best understood in the context of the larger erosion of democracy in our country.

There's no reason that charter schools have to be part of this problem. Charter schools can be run by and responsive to local taxpayers and voters. Just up the road from me is a community that lost their local school because the district felt enrollment had dropped too far; the community restarted their school as a charter school, owned, operated and controlled by a local board.

Charter schools do not have to mean the end of local control.

And yet, in the modern charter era, they almost always do. From Philly to Detroit to New Orleans, a signature feature of charter-choice systems is to do away with the local control of an elected board. Replace it with properly connected board members, or run it out of a corporate office-- sometimes far, far away. Hold meetings in the dark. Make decisions in seclusion. Keep the financial operations under wraps.

Charteristas have not been shy about it. Reed Hastings, head of Netflix and well-muscled charter supporter, famously outlined how bad elected school boards are for the business plan, and how they should be done away with. To the investors and businessmen, it is only common sense-- you do not let the help dictate how your business will be run and you do not let the customers see anything you don't want them to see. And those "customers" will damn well settle for the choices that you decide to give them, that you think they deserve, that make business sense for you.

There was a time when faux Democrats provided protective cover for this, and neo-liberals were fre market wolves in progressive sheeps' clothing. But that camouflage coalition is starting to show signs of strain, and it becomes increasingly obvious that this is a variant strain of Republicanism. I find that hard to face-- I come from a long line of Republicans, and there are strains of the classic version that I still resonate to. The less government, the better. Let people get together with their own neighbors to deal with their own stuff.

But this is one of the mysteries that we live with. How did the party of small government, local control, and no federal overreach-- how did they become the party of disenfranchisement, the party of government intrusion that works to disempower city governments and disenfranchise citizens. How did the party of Lincoln become the party that aims those attempts to disempower and disenfranchise mostly at citizens who are not wealthy and not white. How did the Grand Old Party end up providing a haven for a bunch of money-hungry power-grabbing racist sumbitches?

At any rate, school choice week is a frighteningly perfect time to reflect on how the worst of the modern charter movement is just a small part of a bigger movement, a sea change in which huge chunks of our elected government no longer holds the democratic process as a valuable or important part of our national life. If you want to pitch charter schools to me, your warm-up needs to be an explanation of how that charter will be a reflection of and responsive to local control, and if you can't do that, give me a good explanation of why democracy and local control are no longer an important part of our national character.


  1. There are whole states like Kansas were all charter schools are run by the local school boards. Wisconsin has an interesting model where the vast majority of charter schools are either run by the local school board or, if they are run by someone else the local school board negotiates the contract with the charter school and a sufficiently large number of district teachers have voted in favor of the charter school opening in the district.

    It is very hard to make a claim about "charter schools" because of the variety of schools and vast differences in state law regulating them.

  2. You want local control? School Choice turns ultimate control over to the parent. Can't get more local than this.

    1. Nope. First, school choice rarely turns control over to parents at all. The school choices whether or not they will accept your child as a student. Then, if you're unhappy with how things are done at the school, there are no people in charge who have to listen to you. You have one card to play-- leaving-- and that comes with a high price for you and a small one for them. The people who run your child's charter school don't have to listen to you, talk to you, respond to you, or otherwise worry about keeping you happy. Parents do not have anything remotely resembling "ultimate" control.

      Second, you're assuming that parents are the only people who deserve a say in how taxpayer dollars are spent. But parents are not the only stakeholders-- students, community, future neighbors, future employers, and other taxpayers all have a stake in what happens in schools.

    2. Michael is one of those who thinks that if the darned gubmint would just get out of the way, we'd all have perfect freedom. What he doesn't understand is that the only "freedom" we'd have is the freedom to suck up to the most powerful player(s) to save our own skin. The same kind of freedom the minnows would have if only the keepers would let them in the shark tank.

  3. I really could use some help about local control...when the media refuses to look at anything unusual...gateway in st. louis has k-5 school that scores 63% on the state test. state score is below national average at 55, the st. louis district scores 31....they have 82% black students. gateway is a gulen school, unless they have split---in which case there would be no report for fear of embarrassment. one possible reason the scores are so high....the student population is 83 percent white. In one state sheet, their scores are part of the 24,500 non charter student averages---in another they are not, but KIPP is. how do I draw a comment about things like this? even with documentation? a silent media is crucial to the 3 member appointed board continuing to serve a half decade longer than was originally planned. I can say this:there were several skeptical comments, unanswered about why slps regained full accreditation with their very low test scores. Very easy answer---the public is not smart enough to understand things like that. which is why they have been not been allowed to vote since 2007.

  4. My numbers looked a bit confusing as I was reading what I wrote. SLPS has an 82% black student population, and the Gateway population is 83% white. (it drops to 67% hite in middle school) It is reported as both a public and a charter school. Labels tend to be flexible in stl.

  5. Peter, my father was president of the Potter County Young Republicans.

    I grew up steeped in the conservative values of hard work and loving your neighbor.

    Since Trump's nomination, I haven't heard any Republican praise his love of liberty.

    I haven't heard any Republicans even pretend that Trump represents liberty.

    1. Trump does not represent liberty. He never talks about spreading liberty or democracy. He is a far cry from Ronald Reagan or any of our post-WWII presidents. All of them, even George W. Bush, were at least partially guided by the idea that liberty is worth promoting in the world. In fact, Trump is actively attempting to damage our democratic allies in Europe and elsewhere and he praises dictators, especially Putin. Trump is enemy of freedom and democracy.