Saturday, March 10, 2018

AEI: Localism and Education

The American Enterprise Institute, a right-tilted, free market loving thinky tank, has put out a collection of essays organized around the topic of localism in America, and within that book is a brief-ish essay by Frederick Hess and Andy Smarick entitled "Localism and Education: Pluralism, Choice, and Democratic Control."

My town, in a somewhat earlier time

Hess and Smarick set out by connecting localism and pluralism, but also connect localism to the freedom "to forge lives and ties among those who share their beliefs and values" which is kind of.... not pluralism. They place public schools in that tradition of community endeavors launched by "responsible, civic-minded" citizens.

Indeed, given the role schools have historically played in binding together the fates of neighborhoods, fostering understanding and interdependency among neighbors, it is no great feat to understand why in so many communities school choice is seen as a threat rather than a boon. In short, two time-tested notions of localism are in tension: one rooted in liberty and free association and the other in the bonds of community.

And the "challenge for education reformers" is that their measure of the merits of different approaches has "become remarkably detached from that of many families, voters and communities."

I agree with this, mostly, except the word "become." In much of the modern ed reform movement, policies and initiatives have ben detached by design. Common Core was designed specifically to override local decisions and bring uniformity from community to community, state to state. Charter schools have been mostly run as private businesses with no actual local governance; who can forget Reed Hastings arguing that local school boards should be eliminated. The detachment from local concerns has always been baked right into reform. As it will turn out, Hess and Smarick don't really disagree with me.

Hess and Smarick admit there are mixed feelings, noting that localism is both "revered and reviled." Then they cite its "long and tangled history" as resulting in a hyper-local control that was "pragmatic, not just philosophical." Some of the conditions of localism, in Hess and Smarick's narrative, began to change:

--namely, explicit efforts to prize assimilation over diversity, the reduced role of churches in schooling, and the increased capacity of state and municipal government--

And this, they argue, led schools to become less local.

Brown v Board, they suggest, kick off a period of government control, based on the moral claim that some locales could not be trusted "to do right by all their students," and history certainly backs that up. And that set of moral reasons, many reformers over the past half-century have wanted to see les localism. Hess and Smarick identify three "camps" of anti-localism reformers.

Business and "Accountability" Republicans. These are the guys pushing standards-based reform and test-based accountability, because you can't trust the locals to get it right-- particularly when that damn teachers union gets involved and starts pushing back.

School Choice Advocates. These are the folks that see local schools as "bureaucratic monopolies" where students must be rescued from their zip code.

Democratic Reformers. Are there Progressives who "have come to see localism as little more than a problem to be solved"? Probably true, as long as there are Progressives who believe those rubes in the hinterlands will screw up standards, segregate like crazy, and try to screw over the poor neighborhoods.

I'm not sure I buy this taxonomy entirely, but their actual point is that despite a wide variety of reformsters who are out to kill localism, almost none have actually managed to end it.

Why, Hess and Smarick wonder, is it so hard to kill?

One, they note, is a sentimental attachment to local control and a belief that it offers "a bulwark against grand plans and far-off agendas." Hess and Smarick aren't going to dismiss this as a legit concern, "given the number and goofiness" of such plans that have been imposed on schools over the year.

But they also want us to consider one other pro-local force, and here they disappoint me, because we have arrived the long way around at the old argument that it's those damned champions of the status quo, those unions and administrators who have a vested interest in keeping things the way they are. It's a shallow argument, and it overlooks two critical points. First, if teachers and administrators are motivated by their vested interest in the system, well, so are all the reformsters who stand to make a living from "disrupting" education or who stand to make a fortune by opening an education-flavored business. Second, and more importantly, it overlooks another explanation for the pro-traditional stance of the "blob"-- people who are trained and experienced professionals in a field might just have a better idea of what works and what doesn't. In fact, we've been at this long enough now to start having versions of one particular conversation over and over and over again:

Reformster: I have discovered widgetomification, and it will revolutionize the education field.

Actual educators: That's a new version of an old idea. It won't work. You should not try to inflict it on schools. You should not waste our limited resources on it.

Reformster: You dreadful status quo-ians. You need to be swept aside.

(Some time passes)

Reformster: I have had another genius insight. I have come to announce that widgetomification does not work!

Actual educators: No shit, Sherlock.

Hess and Smarick almost acknowledge this when they write:

...perhaps Americans have decided to continue situating schools’ authority at the level of small, local democratic units not merely because it is convention but because there is wisdom and value in that convention.

They note that even where charters have captured large market shares and "empowered" (my scare quotes) parents, there is still a move to return power to local boards.

All this works us around to the question of what localism in K-12 actually means.

Reformers have tried to sell choice as "the ultimate expression of localism," allowing families to choose their communities and generally embodying "an understanding of localism based on voluntary associations, nongovernment bodies, and individual empowerment." They have some theories about why this pitch doesn't fly. I think they've missed a couple of major points, but I'll let them go first.

To many communities, they note, a school is not just a school, but a source of local pride. This is correct. Where you find small town school districts contemplating merger, there will be more discussion of school mascots and community identity than of ways to reconcile pedagogical techniques. And when my own district discussed closing some outlying elementary schools, there was the same level of concern you would expect from closing a post office o a community center.

Hess and Smarick are correct to note that, expanding choice "would seem to lead to atomization... in a manner likely to enervate communities and undermine social capital." And they are also correct to note that one some of the issues raised, there is not much room for compromise. " Either public schools are governed by elected officials or they are not." Either families can choose to send their children to private schools and have taxpayers foot the bill, or they can't.

Hess and Smarick have overlooked some other factors here. At one point they characterize choice as pushing authority down "from hulking, bureaucratic district offices." But in small town and rural districts, the central office is not hulking, and it is staffed (like every other small town institution) with readily recognizable friends and neighbors.

More notably, choice systems clash with localism because choice system disenfranchise large chunks of the community. A good solid Baptist community member may not approve of the Catholic school, or an African-American community member may not like the idea of a segregation academy in town, but if those community members don't have children, they have no say in what happens to their choice-directed tax dollars. In my region, where cyber-schools are the only real choice options functioning, community members are angry that a handful of families can make a decision that threatens the future of a school that is valued by the entire community because of laws passed by folks far off in the state capital. Hess and Smarick talk about the visible results of charters and choice, but in my neck of the woods, the visible effect of choice is that taxpayers are paying their taxes and suddenly it's not enough to maintain long-time valued community assets and traditions. A handful of families may get to exercise some choice, but the vast majority of taxpayers get no say at all in choices that are visibly damaging their beloved community schools.

Hess and Smarick end with a battery of questions about the bands of localism and how they both clash with and support the reformy desire for school choice (which is really the only type of reform being discussed here). But think tank ruminations aside, school choice and localism go together like chocolate and gasoline.

1 comment:

  1. Smarick is just espousing a kinder, gentler way to dismantle public education and local boards after years of failed state control of urban districts. Make no mistake, as head of the MD SBOE he is squarely behind the governor's push for more charters. It's his job to support and rebrand other "choice" alternatives like vouchers and
    ESAs if legislators impose a cap on charters.