Saturday, June 12, 2010

Iowa City Schools & the Betrayal of Representative Democracy

June 12, 2010, 8:00 a.m.
[For BP disaster see, "Uncanny Prediction of BP Disaster & Response," June 10, 2010; "BP's Commercial: Shame on Media," June 9; "Big Oil: Calling Shots, Corrupting Government," May 26, 2010; "Obama As Finger-Pointer-In-Chief," May 18, 2010; "Big Oil + Big Corruption = Big Mess," May 10, 2010; "P&L: Public Loss From Private Profit," May 3, 2010.]

School Board's Boundary Decision in Perspective
(bought to you by*)

With a headline referring to a "Betrayal of Representative Democracy" you may be surprised to discover that I am about to provide a little sympathetic perspective to my criticism of the school board's boundary process and decision.

The challenge the board confronted, the choices before them, come from the core of representative democracy theory, and involve a dilemma at least identified (and to some extent resolved) as long ago as 1774.

As the Press-Citizen reported June 12,

School board president Patti Fields said the parents who spoke out at the forums and subsequent school board sessions were clear on what they wanted.

"In the end, it [the school board] felt the community's priority was (in maintaining) neighborhood schools," she said. "People became protective of what was comfortable. Change isn't easy."
Rob Daniel, "School Officials: Process is Working," Iowa City Press-Citizen, June 12, 2010.

It may surprise you, but I couldn't agree with her more -- on all counts: "change isn't easy," people protect what's comfortable, and in this instance that meant making no change in school boundaries.

The day before the paper's editorial saw it differently:

But the 2010 redistricting debacle also showed that our schools leaders still have no idea how to strike a balance between too little community input and too overwhelmingly much. They either failed to take heed from lessons learned in the 2009 Roosevelt debacle or they simply overcompensated.
Editorial, "A few lessons to learn from redistricting," Iowa City Press-Citizen, June 11, 2010.

Frankly, that comes closer to my own takeaway from the redistricting process, but for the slightly different reasons famously analyzed and expounded by Edmund Burke 236 years ago in his "Speech to the Electors of Bristol."

It is [a representative’s] duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to [his constituents]; and . . . to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you . . .. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.
Edmund Burke, “Speech to the Electors of Bristol,” November 3, 1774, The Works of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke (1854‐56), vol. 1, pp. 446‐48, as reproduced in The Founders’ Constitution (University of Chicago, 1987), vol. 1, ch. 13, document 7.

Burke did not offer elected officials a simple, clean mathematical model for calculating their decisions on controversial issues with precision. But he did make courageously clear to his constituents that he would be betraying, rather than serving them if he merely surveyed and then sacrificed his own best judgment to, and voted, their opinions.

When a school board redraws its district boundaries, should it be aware of, and give some consideration to, the opinions of parents? Of course. The same goes for the opinions of other stakeholders as well. That is a part of the responsibility of a "representative."

But a school board meeting is not a New England town meeting, with a direct democracy in which everyone votes on every issue and the majority rules.

In 1955 did the Little Rock school board hold community meetings to find out if the Little Rock parents preferred to keep the segregated schools they had, or desegregate them? Did they vote on the basis of "the community's priority (in maintaining) [segregated] schools"? No. Indeed, as President Eisenhower noted, in ordering troops to Little Rock in 1957 to quell the dangerous public violence over the decision, "In May of 1955, the Little Rock School Board approved a moderate plan for the gradual desegregation of the public schools in that city." "Text of the Address of the President of the United States, Delivered From His Office in the White House," White House News Release, September 24, 1957.

I rather suspect that the members of the Little Rock school board, and President Eisenhower, were as fully aware as ICCSD Board President Patti Fields, that "People became protective of what was comfortable. Change isn't easy." They went ahead with desegregation anyway. Not because it was popular, but because it was right.

School board members have -- or ought to have, if they do not -- access to vast bodies of data regarding "what works" in K-12 education. They are not only able, but should feel themselves required, to put in the time to become familiar with the relevant literature and experiences of other school districts nationwide and worldwide.

As a result of having done that homework, like Edmund Burke, school board members also then have an obligation to bring to the decision making process their knowledge and experience, their "unbiased opinion . . . mature judgment [and] enlightened conscience." They need to believe, and act as if they believed, something I heard then presidential candidate, now Vice President, Joe Biden say more than once in 2007 and 2008: "There are some things worth losing an election for."

Admittedly, this is a balancing act. Admittedly, the wisdom, the responsibility, of Burke's perspective is widely ignored by our other representatives -- especially in this election year -- when their polling of our opinions precedes the formulation of their own. But that doesn't make it right.

And that is why my "betrayal of representative democracy" charge is, in fact, at least in some measure an expression of understanding and sympathy.

* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source -- even if I have to embed it myself.
-- Nicholas Johnson
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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

In discussing profound issues with the taxi driver last night we waxed eloquent on decision making. He pointed out in the USA decisions are generally made for the short term,and to maximize benefit for the few. You have addressed this in terms of Washington DC, but it is at play here.

The school board must strive to make both short term decisions as well as maintain a broad based perspective. The responsibility of the leadership is education on why decisions should be enacted...and not to bully the population. If the leadership cannot make an effective case for an unpopular decision, then maybe leadership is wrong. In many cases leadership bulls right ahead when the 'wisdom of the free market' or 'voice of the voters' is otherwise.

For instance everyone knows the costs of healthcare is too high. However decisions are made for the benefit of the few and made in a leadership autocratic way.

Has anyone ever dared to challenge the 500,000 the CEO m Dean, and Vice President of the UIHC make? No, despite the fact that is not a reasonable stance for the common good, but it is a mandate once again to enrich the selected few based on their entitlement.

The school board and the school leadership needs to listen to the population and if they see the path is going the wrong way, use educational programs to lead public opinion in the way that offers the most benefit for the common good.

Similarly the UIHC needs to open up the democracy, allow input about policy and leadership. Otherwise we see a case where employees and patients are simply vehicles for the benefit of the elite.

Democracy and a chance to vote on the leadership will prevent these entitled 'leaders' to stop enriching themselves and to start working for the common good.