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Choice: For Shareholders or Stakeholders?

Deborah Meier writes again to Robert Pondiscio of Democracy Prep.

Dear Robert,

We agree again—in defense of messiness!

I quote from a wonderful article by one of my favorite teachers, the late Alice Seletsky: "What I like about teaching is that there are no easy answers—to anything. Even after 25 years I have to keep wondering, tinkering, changing my mind, learning ... ."

So too with democracy, and so too with political beliefs and strategies. Preparing children for just such a messy world is part of what a good education is about. So it too must—be messy.

By the way, while the headline of my last letter wasn't mine, it's not far off the mark. The freedom to walk away—which is what leads me to sit by the aisle—is important. We both treasure it. But I see it as one of the essential side effects of a democratic society. Historically, only a few people have had such freedoms. Except in the sense of that old Parisian aphorism: Everyone has the freedom to sleep under the bridge! (or, "Let them eat cake.") In short, we don't all have the freedom to sleep in our own room, not to mention a refrigerator full of what we most love. Or to know our children are safely provided for.

Choice—which in modern politics is mostly associated the abortion debate, has also of late become the call of those who want to privatize schooling. It's occasionally hard to keep track. Who could possibly be against choice—except, unless ... the price is too high and our means too low. Intriguingly, most of my career has been spent in schools of choice—East Harlem District 4's famous experiment in choice and then the Pilot schools in Boston. But in both cases they were free to parents to choose under a planned system that promised a pretty good balance in terms of race, class, ethnicity, special needs, non-English speakers, et al. In both cases we were constrained by a union contract that was however, amended to allow for most of the freedoms we thought essential. And helped keep management from encroaching. (Have you read The Power of Their Ideas?) We remained responsible, in the end, to the elected leadership of our local school boards but mostly to our own immediate stakeholders (parents, staff, community). Yes, that's one of the irritating realities that democracy imposes—multiple constituencies. And, sometimes we ignored all or some city and state officials—in a spirit of creative compliance.

Unfortunately, most of the school voucher and privatization zealots—especially the powerful ones—were oddly uninterested in this work. To most of them, the goal has been control by private "shareholders" rather than control by "stakeholders," with the latter having only the power to walk away. The challenge in a democracy lies in figuring out how best to put power in the hands of which stakeholders. There's no single solution to doing so. Experience, judgment and finally politics is how we settle such issues in a democracy.

Some economists have, of late, made the point that America's capitalist economy is in trouble precisely because of a gradual shift of focus from stakeholders to shareholders—with an increasingly single-minded devotion to short-term gains vs. the public good, customer satisfaction or long-term fiscal wisdom. Others point to the unbridled power of CEOs and the disproportionate earnings they accrue. Not a day goes by without The New York Times business section reporting on corruption scandals in the billions. Greed is "in" these days. Pilot schools, in Boston, tried to rebalance the power by placing far more of it in the hands of those closest to the action. It's an idea worth thinking about as we try to restore balance between the power of dollars and the power of "the people" in the 21st century.

Neighborhood schools have some important advantages in terms of political democracy, precisely by encouraging people to talk across class and race. Alas, not many contain such mixtures! When it works it can be a place where we can confront others who share something important to all of us: our children. It lends itself to a form of governance that promotes the spirit of compromise and fellowship. We relinquish this on rare occasion when matters of grave national interest—like racism—are deemed to override particular stakeholders. But I also see some of the drawbacks of a single neighborhood school when it comes to exploring new ways of delivering education that may seem too dangerous to some of those being experimented on! In urban communities it is easier to have our cake and eat it, too, which is what District 4 managed successfully for many years. Within a few square miles there were 21 public buildings—represented by the same board of education and, in fact, the same congressman and city council representatives.

Choice might have been an opportunity for promoting integration, as Pilot schools and Central Park East schools were. But alas, neither charters of choice nor neighborhood schools have been places where Brown v. Board of Education has had much effect. And choice was one vehicle that was and is still used to avoid integration.

You seem to counterpoise fairness and liberty, which strikes me as odder even than voting vs. voting with one's feet. (Amazingly, most eligible voters actually don't vote—in this birthplace of modern democracy—and some think that's too many.) Neither liberty nor fairness taken to extremes are the choices before us. My liberty ideally shouldn't undermine yours, and being fair to my child should not take away your hopes for yours. When they clash, how we decide is the democratic dilemma. What is a fact, however, is that we are becoming both less free and more unfair at the same time. It is harder to join the top 1 percent or leave the bottom 1 percent while we are more, not less, hemmed in by regulations, invasions of our privacy, threats from above et al. Neither liberty nor fairness are being honored. That's where you and I have a common stake.

We have increased the odds that sheer chance—who our parents are—dictates our life trajectory. We've also increased the odds that some will get the good breaks along the way and others won't. Even our justice system has become more, not less skewed. Has anyone served a day in prison for the scandals that led to the economic crash in 2008, even as some pot users have spent decades?

Only the well-off have a shot at full-scale legal "justice," not to mention the best medical care, the best schools, and on and on and on. To be free requires conditions that are increasingly limited to those with untold wealth; the rest are getting poorer. More democracy is the best answer to both freedom and fairness—and rests on our viewing ourselves as members connected to each other in myriad amazing and valuable ways. In the long run.

What your daughter had in her private school may be priceless; still the odds are that it costs money. My old private school has just added a second swimming pool. My teachers had very reduced student loads and lots of planning time, and the school could and did kick out children who refused to follow its norms or were "falling behind." These "advantages" are not easily replicated. Like you, "I'm unwilling to be told to be patient while powerful and well-meaning people take care of it for the good of all." But, maybe, Robert, we are pointing a finger at very different people.

Fairness, equality, freedom, empathy, skepticism are the intangibles on which democracy rests. Plus (read my latest at deborahmeier.com) a little audacity.

Deb

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