"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Local Control of Schools: A Fanciful Democratic Endeavor

Timothy Scott

For the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change - Audre Lorde

In a Connecticut State Superior Court decision on September 7, 2016, Judge Thomas G. Moukawsher ruled that while the state of Connecticut is providing adequate funding for its school districts, the methods by which those funds are being distributed violates the state’s constitution. According to Moukawsher, “Connecticut is defaulting on its constitutional duty to provide adequate public school opportunities because it has no rational, substantial and verifiable plan to distribute money for education aid and school construction.” Moukawsher went on to claim,
…the state spends billions of dollars on schools without any binding principle guaranteeing that education aid goes where it’s needed. During the recent budget crisis, this left the rich schools robbing millions of dollars from poor schools…
Judge Moukawsher declared that a system that “allows rich towns to raid money desperately needed by poor towns makes a mockery of the state’s constitutional duty” in providing “a minimally adequate, free public education.” He gave Connecticut six months to devise a new funding formula that applies “educationally-based principles to allocate funds in light of the special circumstances of the state’s poorest communities.” Judge Moukawsher went on to apply his indictments of Connecticut’s education system to the U.S. public education at large.

In step with common corporate education reform mandates, this unelected judge also ordered state leaders to “link the terms of educators' jobs with things known to promote better schools” by raising “standards for hiring, firing, evaluating and paying education professionals.” As part of this union busting agenda, Moukawsher also ordered the state to better define the purpose of elementary and secondary education based on the rationale of quantifiable education standards tied to tests that determine grade promotion, high school graduation and rationalize the high cost of special education.
Judge Moukawsher was appointed to the Connecticut of State Superior Court by Democratic Governor Dan Malloy, a committed education reformer. Prior to being appointed to the bench, Moukawsher spent years as a banking lobbyist as well as as special counsel to the Connecticut Senate Commerce Committee. It is therefore easy to assume that his ruling is based on the same interests and worldview as those who are driving education reform policies. Additionally, Moukawsher’s ruling has the potential to create more opportunities for charter schools and EdTech companies to grab more funds that will (supposedly) be directed towards Connecticut’s most impoverished school districts.
In his argument, Moukawsher identified local control as a long-standing problem that, while not law, is an American tradition that releases the state from taking more responsibility in guaranteeing an “adequate” education for “poor school districts.” To achieve his mandates, Moukawsher went on to decree that the “state's responsibility for education is direct and non-delegable” and therefore “it must assume unconditional authority to intervene in troubled school districts.”

Local control of schools in the U.S. has traditional conservative roots, stemming from antifederalist fears that evolved into localist, states’ rights and libertarian ideology. According to education historian Carl Kaestle,
…the tradition of local-state governance has prevailed over efforts to equalize education resources across state lines through litigation or legislation… localist and states’ rights opponents included three main groups: nervous Southerners who rightly suspected that federal aid would be used to require racial integration; Roman Catholics, who saw nothing good in it for them; and traditional Republicans, who viewed central power as inefficient and un-American. 
In the current era, where state and federal governments put the interests of the global financial industry above all else, authoritarian education policies enable states, big city mayors and unelected “emergency managers” to seize control of impoverished “underperforming” schools. This facilitates a process whereby schools are transformed into financial instruments that more efficiently transfer public funds into financial markets, while imposing punitive control mechanisms on staff, administrators, subordinated communities and students as future workers and debt instruments. Reporting on the current delocalizing trend within the context of growing austerity, a February 2016 Washington Post article claimed:
Governors in Michigan, Arkansas, Nevada, Wisconsin, Georgia, Ohio and elsewhere — mostly Republican leaders who otherwise champion local control in their fights with the federal government — say they are intervening in cases of chronic academic or financial failure. They say they have a moral obligation to act when it is clear that local efforts haven’t led to improvement.
As Thomas Gentzel, the executive director of the National School Boards Association, puts it in the same article, “There certainly is an effort afoot in the country to dismantle local government and reduce or eliminate the role of local school boards.” While these efforts are normally facilitated by federal and state legislatures, Judge Moukawsher’s ruling is part of a growing trend of judiciaries that are intervening for the same purposes.

Since these structural adjustment mandates further marginalize local communities, families and subordinated groups; maintaining or expanding local control is increasingly becoming a rallying cry for groups across the nation and across the political spectrum. Simply, local control of schools (and other public institutions) is often viewed as one of the last bastions of American democracy. Yet, it is important to remember that the local control versus state or federal control argument occupies a complicated history and structural landscape that is embedded within myths about American democracy. These myths are often perpetuated by public education advocates and union leaders who commonly invoke the mantra of “saving our schools” for the sake of “our democracy.” While it is important to explore strategies to reign in the authoritarian power associated with the neoliberal state’s unbending fidelity to finance capitalism, democratic options are increasingly limited in terms of the local versus state or federal control of public education struggle. In fact, this struggle takes on a greater sense of urgency as education is on the cusp of being relocated entirely within a virtual realm managed by an all encompassing artificial intelligence surveillance infrastructure. Still, a critical analysis of local control within the context of U.S. democracy is crucial in terms of the storylines we cite and discourses we reproduce when envisioning future emancipatory possibilities.

Local control, democracy and the big picture

Just as structural barriers that restrict or inhibit social integration, social equity and economic equality were woven in the fabric of U.S. society, so was the primary method of funding locally based public schools: property taxes based on local home values. The very idea that access to, and the quality of, a “public” education (as linked to social status) was tied to private property is the story of “American Democracy.”

Although founded, shaped and structured within the nationalistic design of mass public education, public schools in the U.S. have long been considered democratic institutions that are governed by, and serve, localized interests under the doctrine of local control. Local control presumes that because public schools are largely funded by local property taxes, they are responsive and accountable to the communities where they are located. This system supposedly enables local stakeholders (parents and the community at large) to monitor and participate in the affairs of their public schools via voting for, or serving on, elected school boards and committees. This assumed sovereignty also permits community members to have a say in framing and contesting the curriculum within their children’s schools. To some extend this has been true and has varied from location to location, but has largely been confined within a parochial nationalistic worldview. Yet, structural (cultural, political and economic) inequities that disenfranchise and divide people, along with undemocratic private sector mandates attached to federal and state regulations and funding, frames the actual history of local control.

Ultimately, it is the undemocratic cultural political economy (white supremacy, capitalism, settler-colonialism, heteropatriarchy) that is preserved by the U.S. Constitution, the Supreme Court and imperious cultural scripts of U.S. nationalism that averts democratic control of public schools. At its core, the U.S. Constitution was framed within an ideological outline based on all of the things the federal government cannot do, also known as “negative rights.” State constitutions largely mirror or default to the U.S. Constitution in fundamental ways. The negative rights doctrine has historically permitted or required federal inaction in terms of anything that disrupts the founding fathers’ aversion to direct democracy based on their constitutional deference to property rights, individual rights and states’ rights. In effect, negative rights restrict parity of participation within political affairs and public and civil society institutions; undermines or passively recognizes status equality and prohibits substantive resource redistribution. It is no accident that these restricted positive rights are core determinants of a genuine democracy. The foundational ideology of negative rights is powerful and is inherently tied to the structures of the U.S. cultural political economy. All together, these are the commanding cultural forces that consistently undermine the enactment of policies intended to bring about substantive and lasting social and economic equity and equality within the United States. Instead, the rights of private profit prevail over all others, including positive rights such as the unconditional guarantee of universal health care, housing, food, income, restorative justice, reparations, equality of opportunity and outcome, etc.

This propensity to prevent and undermine recognition rights, status equality and redistribution, which are tied to parity of participation (democracy), has prevailed throughout U.S. history. This is revealed by the outcomes of collective struggles within and outside the nation’s foundational institutions that have attempted to transform them into being more equitable, inclusive and democratic. Many efforts to expand status equality and ameliorate social, political, legal, cultural and economic conditions have failed; some have resulted in meager to moderate gains, while a few have resulted in significant improvements in the quality of life for certain groups. Ultimately though, any progress made to substantively constrain or disrupt the overriding dominance of the intersecting structures of settler-colonialism, white supremacy, capitalism and heteropatriarchy have largely resulted in temporary “parchment barriers” policies (as James Madison referred to them). The nation’s founding governing contract - the U.S. Constitution - and the infrastructurally powerful institutions that operationalizes it (including education) are designed to self-correct and bring the founding social order back in line when it is diverted from its intended aims. This is one of the underlying purposes of current education reform policies, which (along with other neoliberal programs) were instituted in response to major cultural shifts tied to emancipatory social movements from the 1950’s through the 1970’s that were challenging public education’s original nationalistic and social efficiently function. Current education policies also seek to update education to better meet the demands tied to global financialization. This trajectory is taking schooling into the unchartered terrain of full on privatization, marketization and high-tech data mining surveillance systems that promise to do away with any potential for holistic models of teaching and learning.

The inclination to undo hard fought state protections in the U.S. occurs through non-enforcement of laws or the altering or reversing of laws by legislative bodies or the courts. This was the fate of the regulatory and distributive Keynesian reforms that came with the New Deal of the 1930s, that were not only limited in scope, but only lasted for approximately fifty-years. This has also been the fate of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was born out of a decades long recognition and status equality struggle that aimed to (once again), “enforce the constitutional right to vote,” to disrupt “discrimination in public accommodations...to protect constitutional rights in public facilities and public education...to prevent discrimination in federally assisted programs...to establish a Commission on Equal Employment Opportunity.”

Through the U.S. Constitution, the founding fathers created a form of government and a political system that prevented “the people” from finding horizontal cohesion and instead, according to Michael Parenti, “was designed to dilute their vertical force, blunting its upward thrust upon government by interjecting indirect and staggered forms of representation.” To do so, a system of checks was constructed to safeguard against James Madison’s expressed fears of "agrarian attempts" and "symptoms of a leveling spirit." Additionally, the U.S. Constitution dictates that an Electoral College, not the general electorate or a majority of citizen voters, will choose the U.S. president, while an unelected the Supreme Court continuously intervenes to preserve the social order envisioned by the opulent white Christian slave owning men who founded the nation. This has included restricting the narrow suffrage rights of those who have endured centuries of structural violence. This happened once again in 2013 with the Shelby County v. Holder Supreme Court decision, where the Court gutted key provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by making it easier for states across the south and beyond to restrict the voting rights of Black and Brown citizens. Since then, many states have been working to institute restrictive voting laws that target these same groups, including: voter I.D. laws; the elimination of same day voter registration; prohibiting out-of-precinct ballots from being counted; limiting voting periods and hours; empowering poll observers with more flexibility to challenge voters, etc.  

Additionally, everything that came out of the “War on Poverty” - the Social Security Act 1965; the Food Stamp Act of 1964; The Economic Opportunity Act of 1964; and the equity based funding mechanisms of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 - have since been systematically dismantled, unfunded, unenforced or used for nefarious purposes (i.e., ESSA).
Over the past forty-years, already restrictive union rights have been increasingly unenforced and systematically dismantled for all workers in the U.S. As with all state protections in the U.S., union rights – along with all other labor rights outside of the scope of the National Labor Relations Act – have proven to be temporary parchment barriers.

The federal government's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was established in 1970 to research, monitor, set standards and enforce activities that ensure clean and healthy natural and built environments in the U.S. In terms of clean water (both drinking and waterways), clean air, and public exposure to environmental pollutants, chemical toxins and food pesticides; the EPA has a history of lax enforcement, for setting low standards and for having a tendency to passively protect industry at the expense of people. It is not just the EPA, almost all levels of government fail to enforce laws that were enacted to protect the health and safety of people. This failure is especially true when it come to those who are deemed to be the most disposable, as recently revealed with the led poisoned waters of Flint Michigan and elsewhere.  

One of the most glaring historical examples of this reality was the fact that despite several constitutional amendments and multiple reinforcement and civil rights acts at the federal level, the violent structure of Jim Crow existed and persisted for over a century, creating separate and unequal “democratically controlled” public school systems. These realities persist today. Despite the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that ruled racial segregation in public schools as unconstitutional and that separate schools are indeed unequal; U.S public schools are more racially segregated in the 21st century than they were just before the Brown ruling. Another example is found with the Title I provision of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which had the stated intention of distributing federal funds to schools with a high percentage of low-income families. Based on a formula that distributes federal funds to state’s, which then allocate funds to municipal school districts in need; Title I quickly become an instrument of conditionality whereby federal and state governments leveraged funding earmarked for subordinated groups for the purpose of imposing authoritarian profit-driven policies on the intended recipients. This vicious bribery scheme was exemplified with the No Child Left Behind Act, the Race to the Top funding competition and more recently with the Every Student Succeeds Act.

The hard reality and future of local control

Reflective of these examples of the tenuous nature of federal civil rights and other “equalizing” interventions, persisting examples of undemocratic policies and practices in public schools - despite “local control” - are numerous. These include the fact that educational apartheid based on race and class persists as a long accepted reality; school “push out” rates for Black and Brown children are climbing; student tracking based on race and class remains a common practice; it is increasingly acceptable for schools to deny impoverished children meals if their family falls behind on payments and nationalistic myths that preserve systems of domination prevail in school curriculum, including Christian fundamentalist influences within the culture of schooling. The most glaring example of the undemocratic nature of public education - despite “local control” - lies in the fact that since its inception; private interests have dictated, overseen and benefitted from public school curriculum, pedagogical practices, teacher education as well as student, teacher and school assessments. In fact, universal public education was constructed to be an institution of social control, intended to maintain the intersecting dominions that encompass the U.S. cultural political economy.

By design, public schools are both agents and subjects of larger systems of domination, therefore making it impossible for inequities amongst public school districts to be remedied by local control. Local governance and financing of schools only contribute to the wide disparities among school districts and communities’ ability to adequately fund and participate in local public schools. It is the built in structural inequalities and accompanying cultural myths generated by U.S. society at large which guarantee that affluent communities – primarily white, with higher tax bases and ample social agency – can sufficiently fund and have some level of influence in their local public schools; while subordinated and impoverished communities (especially Black, Brown and Indigenous) cannot. These same structural realties also make state and federal control of U.S. public education a dreadful alternative for those who seek social and economic justice, let alone emancipation.

As with the current formation of the Opt Out (of standardized testing) movement, advocacy for local control will likely become irrelevant as the authoritarian and borderless domain of global financialization and its militarized and omnipresent “Big Data” ecosystem penetrates deeper into all aspects of society. As an essential realm of this vast infrastructure, education systems as we know them are being displaced by “anytime, anywhere personalized learning,” promising to make both brick and mortar and localized schooling obsolete within the coming decade.

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