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The limits of localism

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Dear Deborah,

I love democracy too. Can’t imagine any other system under which I would want to live. I too grew up in the era when Communism and fascism were horrible realities, not theories.

Even in a democracy, there are mandates that we must all accept. When you write “mandates,” I think “laws.” The laws are passed by democratically elected bodies, and like them or not, we live with them.

Thinking about the power of self-governance and schools leads me to think about some situations where I am glad that there are democratic checks and balances on local preferences. I think, for example, of the segregated schools that I attended as a child in Texas. I have no doubt that if the issue had been put to a vote, it would have been overwhelmingly approved by the local populace. Unquestionably, racial segregation satisfied the white majority. Parents in the schools I attended would never have willingly opened the school doors to black children.

Or I think of the perennial debates about evolution and school prayer. I am willing to bet that you would be uncomfortable to find your views embraced by religious fundamentalists who want to see their children learning their own views about how the universe originated and want them to start the day with a prayer.

We could solve all these problems if every group had its own schools that reflected its own culture and preferences. But the courts do not look favorably on this libertarian interpretation of local governance. There are some activities—especially those of a religious nature—that the courts have ruled cannot take place in public schools. Sometimes I worry that the First Amendment rights of people with strong religious views have been jettisoned (my friend Joseph Viteritti has a new book about to be published on this subject, called The Last Freedom).

I worry too about public schools that teach only one culture and do so uncritically. I think that schools should equip students with the ability to examine their own culture and others with a critical eye.

But ultimately negotiating the boundaries between what is and is not permissible in the public square is what democracy is about. We have no final answers. We keep negotiating.


1 Comment

Hello -

Your defense of teachers' unions can only be made from 50,000 feet and by two professionals who seem to be fighting battles long since over. The idea that teacher unions are so necessary to defend helpless teachers against all-powerful administrators is insulting to all of us parents out here who navigate that non-unionized professional reality everyday. Only in education could a tenured professor and a founder of a school movement that depends greatly on non-unionized teacher wax so nostalgically on the need for unions.

As a parent, I have seen the consequences of a strict union contract to meet the challenges of education today:

a school system with choice cannot maintain the integrity of its magnets because specially trained teachers are laid off or bumped by teachers not trained in the magnet's philosophy whether that is dual immersion, Montessori, etc.;

a school system that has a teaching force whose minimum seniority rank is ten years, a teaching force that was hired to teach in the early 1990's in a district that was predominantly white but that is now over 70% students of color;

a school system where excellent teams of teachers working together in high-poverty schools have been broken apart by arbitrary seniority-driven layoffs;

a school system where 1 in 4 children do not speak English well and who have almost no teachers who speak thier langauge - Oromo or Spanish or Thai.

Your cursory discussion of the impact of unions cast in old-style musings about John Dewey and Al Shanker is insulting to those of us parents who are as grey as you yet are struggling to keep our schools alive while the union rules are working against us every step of the way.

Furthermore, I have seen powerful union movements today like SEIU organize school workers - food workers, janitors, bus drivers - who are making half of what teachers make. Yet, their contracts were frozen year after year while teacher steps and lanes continued to grow with inflation. SEIU is a great union - and the privileged position of professional unions advocating for more work place control and higher benefits without also shouldering responsibilities for organizational performance is difficult to accept.

Your use of your power and position on this issue saddens me and harms your overall commitment to achieving great educations for all kids.

Very disappointed in Minneapolis

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