Democracy is inherently good, and since public schools are democratically controlled they, too, are inherently good. Right?
You’d think so from the way many people invoke “democracy” when championing government schools, but thanks to a recent blog post from the Fordham Institute’s Mike Petrilli, we might have a rare opportunity to actually scrutinize that assumption. A few days ago, Petrilli questioned the value of local school boards in light of what seems to be frequent capture by teachers unions, and was immediately accused of attacking “democracy” by historian Diane Ravitch.
“Gosh, Mike,” Ravitch wrote in the comments section, “it sounds as though you have identified the real problem ‘reformers’ face: democracy.”
With that the battle was on, and it’s one I’m happy to join: A huge problem we face in education is, indeed, democracy.
Before I go further, the first thing that’s necessary to do is define “democracy.” Unfortunately, that’s something rarely done by those who wield the term like a rhetorical chainsaw, swinging it wildly at anyone who might question government schooling. Typically, it seems the word is employed to just vaguely connote some sort of action by “the people” – whoever they are – as opposed to “elites,” or to indicate that popular voting is in some fashion used to make laws.
That said, the most basic definition of democracy – the one you probably learned in grade school – follows these lines: “Control of an organization or group by the majority of its members.” You might also assume the word means representative democracy, where people vote for their representatives and majorities of reps make the laws, but usually the word’s use isn’t even that precise.
This lack of precision leads to numerous problems, and a big one was illustrated in an exchange between Bob Bowdon – of Cartel and ChoiceMedia.tv fame – and Rutgers University professor Bruce Baker. Bowdon had a Flypaper post pointing out numerous cases in which ”the people” enacted education policies disliked by teachers unions, and the unions, instead of accepting the “democratic” outcomes, headed to the courts to thwart the new laws. Baker would have none of this argument, in the comments section of Petrilli’s post calling Bowdon’s entry an “absurd and misinformed rant.” Why? Largely because Bowdon failed to acknowledge that courts in Georgia – where one of the legal actions cited by Bowdon occurred – were taking perfectly legitimate action in striking down a charter school law that violated the state’s constitution.
Of course, Baker isn’t talking about democracy, at least in any precise way (or the feel-good, “people rule” sense I think Ravitch meant to convey) but a constitutional republic with separation of powers. That’s a very different thing, with a very different goal, from simple majority rule. As The Federalist discusses with great insight, a constitutional republic with checks and balances is a system intended to minimize the threat government poses to individuals, while enabling it to do those things that government must do. That does not at all seem to be the “democracy” Ravitch and company were lauding, and you can’t reasonably blame Bowdon for turning that against them. Live by the loaded, imprecise definition, die by the loaded, imprecise definition. Unfortunately, that makes it much harder to have a useful debate about education governance.
But why don’t we want pure democracy?
Aside from the towering logistical problems, uninhibited majority rule is an existential threat to individual liberty, the true foundation of American society. Should my ability to drum up support from 50.1 percent of voters be all that’s needed to have your house taken from you, your speech quashed, and your family imprisoned? Of course not, but pure democracy would not only allow that, it would give it complete legal sanction.
So a constitutional republic, with its checks, balances, and enumerated powers, is infinitely preferable to pure democracy. However, it is a much harder concept to employ when you just want people to feel good about public schools, or angry about efforts to change them. “For crying out loud, they are democratic schools – schools controlled by the people – you evil 1-percenter!” (Cue foreboding tyranny-of-the-majority music.) And just because a form of governance is better than democracy doesn’t mean it works well.
Why does this superior form of government still largely fail? To really get into this question I recommend Cato’s Government Failure: A Primer in Public Choice, available free online! I’ll just briefly hit the main, inherent pathology of government that constantly leads to skewed results.
Ultimately, it comes down to concentrated benefits and diffuse costs: The people who get the greatest benefit from a policy will be the most motivated to participate in the politics of that policy, while the costs are usually highly diffuse, giving the people paying for it relatively little incentive to politick. In education, the greatest benefit is accrued by the school employees – the people whose very livelihoods come from the system – hence they exert hugely disproportionate power. They are also much easier to organize than parents or taxpayers.
In light of this basic inequality of incentives, it is no surprise that teachers unions (and other education employee organizations) wield disproportionate influence. Teachers and administrators aren’t bad people, it’s simply that normal incentives give them much more reason to constantly engage in education politics than the average voter, taxpayer, or even parent, for whom there are many other major concerns than trying to influence the district, state, of federal government on education policy.
To deal with the effects of concentrated benefits and diffuse costs in school districts, Petrilli suggests a couple of possible options: a move toward greater mayoral control of the schools, as exists in New York City, or having states control education. But these are fraught with at least as much peril as local control.
At the risk of violating an Italian corollary of Godwin’s Law, the mayoral control argument seems to come down to this: Mussolini made the trains run on time. Essentially, if you can put someone with dictatorial power in charge he won’t have to worry about special interests and can do what needs to be done. Plus, in the case of mayoral control there wouldn’t be real dictatorship – Il Duce could be voted out in four years.
Obviously, though, there’s a reason the term “dictator” doesn’t enjoy the same esteem as, say, ”chocolate,” or “Betty White” – people generally don’t like the way dictators turn out. Maybe you’ll get one who’s benevolent and wise – in which case you’ll just be troubled by your ultimately nonexistent freedom – but more likely you’ll get one who’s stupid, or cruel, or a combination of the two. And what do you do when the dictator imposes a bad reading curriculum on your kids, or closes a school that might have served them well? Just suffer.
But there’s the election – you can hold a mayor responsible then! Of course, that puts us right back in the concentrated benefits, diffuse costs problem, where the special interests are likely to be much more active in politicking than the average voter. And the problem isn’t just that: When the public votes for mayor, the vote is based not only on education policies, but also law enforcement, sanitation, sodium speakeasy crackdowns, and myriad other things. In other words, it is almost impossible to send an unambiguous message that the public is angry about education when so many issues affect who votes and why.
All these problems remain with state or federal control. There’s a reason the National Education Association, American Federation of Teachers, American Association of School Administrators, etc., have big headquarters in the Washington, DC, area, and their state affiliates run hefty operations in state capitals: they are wielding political power! And, like mayoral elections, voting in state or federal elections isn’t just about education, but taxation levels, wars, roads, bridges to nowhere, extramarital affairs, “do nothing” congresses, birth certificates, and so on.
At this point you might feel that democracy really is bad, and generally doomed to failure. And you’d be right, which is why government should be restricted to doing only those things that private individuals cannot do, and one of those things is not furnishing education. We know that private individuals can and do supply widespread education from our own history, in which education and literacy had very broad reach before government schools existed, and in which private schools often thrived – including a huge system of parochial schools – despite having to compete with “free” alternatives. Perhaps even more compelling, we can see it in the massive for-profit schooling industries that out-teach government schools in the poorest places in the world.
So what is the viable solution to our education governance problems? To end government control of education, setting both educators and parents free. Move to a system of universal school choice, in which funding is controlled by parents, educators have the autonomy to run their own schools, and all involved have equal power because free, voluntary exchange – not wielding political influence – is how business is done. Don’t make parents and taxpayers engage in endless, plodding, political warfare in which they’ll always be outgunned. Let them exercise immediate power by taking their kids – and the money to educate them – out of schools that do not satisfactorily serve them and put them into schools that do.
Thanks again to Mike Petrilli for daring to question “democracy,” and I hope it spurs a truly thoughtful, honest discussion about this absolutely crucial topic.