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The power of self-governance

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Dear Diane,

Ah, mandates. My flirtation with libertarianism is deep-seated and may be related to having grown up at a time when two absolutes—fascism and communism—were at their heights. Both dismissed the sloppy bourgeois democracies with their tepid ideals. I knew the Left-side of this better than the Fascist one, and found myself on occasion uneasy about claims that one had to sacrifice democracy for higher ends—albeit temporarily. You can't make an omelette without breaking eggs. The masses have been brain-washed and until we can clear their heads of foolishness "we" must rule in their place.

But in the end, I think it explains why my "religion" became democracy itself. (P.S. It may have been unwise—but not undemocratic—for unions to have fought for the check off.)

Naturally I was often tempted to abandon democracy, because "the people" seemed so often wrong. But who would I choose in their place? Thus my love of that Churchillian quotation: Democracy is a thoroughly flawed idea until one considers the alternatives (or words to that effect).

So I'm always glad for the existence of good alternatives—sometimes I prefer local rights, sometimes state rights, sometimes private rights, and other times federal rights. Just not all in one place. I know I'm inconsistent. So then is the Constitution. I admit, to start with, I'm both an uncertainty AND an inconsistency fan.

But when it comes to how we "raise" our children, when it comes to whose History is True, I fall back stubbornly on being as close as I can to viewing localism as my bottom line, with a few exceptions.

There are, I realize, some Friedmanite libertarians who agree with me and suggest a private free-market solution—competition solves all! They would be hard put, of course, to argue that such measures raise test-scores. So far the evidence is clear: privatization does not raise scores. But, mostly they argue for it based on their belief in the market place as the highest form of democracy. That's where I disagree.

My experience in the 70s, 80s and 90s in NYC's East Harlem community however sold me on public choice as a fitting response to public accountability! Families and teachers values re schooling are sufficiently varied that they cannot always be "compromised" without compromising a decent and coherent educational setting. Perhaps we will discover that the important thinking—about means and ends—must rest with the constituents of each and every school: the familiar idea of self-governance. Not only is self-governance efficient, but it's educational.

While management experts search for "the best system", we've abandoned the common ingredient that "beat the odds" share, the power of self-governance (even when no one officially gave it to them). Schools that connect with their immediate public, not pull away from it, serve kids best.

What are the limits of such localism? What kind of loving lay public stewardship is needed? In the name of the larger public good what must we have consensus on? What trade-offs could we live with? It might be useful, Diane, if you and I—committed as we both are to public education—discussed what such limits might be like in the public sphere?


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Families and teachers values re schooling are sufficiently varied that they cannot always be "compromised" without compromising a decent and coherent educational setting.

How does one balance this with the Balkanization that comes when families seek out schools where everyone shares their particular values (which often correlate with their particular backgrounds, culture and prejudices...)?

Wanting to find a school for your child that puts a high value on traditional academic rigor seems reasonable -- but what if that effectively turns into looking for a school where almost all parents are college graduates?

I don't think there's a simple answer, but its the question that stands between me and a whole-hearted embrace of school choice as an engine of reform.

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