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Can We Trust Policymakers to Make Good Decisions for Schools?

I recently attended a group meeting with our state representative Curt VanderWall (a novice legislator) in a town hall setting. It was a strictly limited one-hour meeting in the middle of a weekday, scheduled and announced four days before the event, so the modest audience—perhaps 40 people—was mostly gray-haired and non-threatening. Nobody was carrying a sign.

VanderWall tried to capture the narrative thread, right out of the chute, by talking about automobile insurance for the first 15 minutes (clearly, a topic he knew well)—but finally, someone raised their hand and broke into his monologue with a question about charter schools.

His legislative district is largely rural, with about two dozen school districts, most of which are small, some with graduating classes under 20 students. Education funding in Michigan is not based on property tax—the money follows the student to the school they choose. These are the kinds of towns and counties where a charter school pulling 100 kids out of local public districts would be devastating—to programs, to resource allocation, to community loyalty.

You'd think the legislator would know that. He lives here, after all.

But no. Vanderwall said he "used to think" that charters could upset the public school ecology, but since he started working at the statehouse, he'd met a family whose son had some special interests that could only be met by a charter. So he'd changed his mind.

I wondered if hanging out with other legislators in his party, and being visited and feted by "choice" lobbyists, endemic in Michigan, had anything to do with this change of heart. I wondered how many times he would tell that story—"I met a family..."—completely unaware that he was elevating the needs of one child over the needs of an entire district filled with children whose parents were counting on the public school to meet their needs.

Can we trust policymakers to make beneficial decisions for schools? Can we rely on their deep understanding of the issues, their moral compass, their desire to craft policy for the common good?

Of course not. The system is too warped by pay-to-play interests and shallow thinkers to believe that lawmakers have the general citizenry, their constituents' well-being, in mind. What they have in mind is getting re-elected. Due to strict term limits, that can only happen twice for VanderWall, before he has to start thinking about running for the state Senate, the go-to career path for state representatives who get term-limited. 

Sometimes, state legislatures go completely off the rails with bills that seem, at first glance, to be well-intended. I am fascinated by what's happening in North Carolina, as school districts push back against legislation designed to mandate lower class sizes.

On its face, this lowering of class size seems like a good thing, and just in the nick of time, as our president seems bent on stripping away even the modest amounts of federal money that support reasonable class sizes in high-poverty districts. But, as any school superintendent could have told the legislature, it's not as easy as it looks.

North Carolina districts will need to come up with an estimated $388 million and somewhere between 3000 and 5400 new elementary teachers. And that doesn't even cover all the new teaching spaces needed for these smaller classes. Music, art and physical education could become a thing of the past, as the new law mandates smaller classes, but no enrichment opportunities.

A temporary pause on the N.C. legislation seems to be the current stopgap solution, turning the what-happens-now discourse into a public spat between the schools and legislature (Why did superintendents wait to tell us this was a problem?) and partisan forces on either side. Parents, meanwhile, have organized vigils to keep art, music and physical education in place.

Here's the interesting thing: All of this was entirely predictable. If North Carolina policymakers really cared enough about the education of children in their state to radically lower class sizes, they could have tapped into what California learned when doing the same in 1996. Teacher qualifications go down. The quality of facilities is diminished as schools scramble to find new spaces. Poor schools still lag behind, although there may be a small uptick in early childhood literacy scores.

Churn, churn, churn. Years of disruption, as school administrators try to follow state policy while keeping the best interests of their students and available resources in mind.

Most public school districts determine class size through a cooperative process between teacher associations, local boards and school leaders. Is it always ideal? No.

But inserting state laws about class size has upset the local control principle, the idea that people on site, doing the work, are best positioned to make decisions.

Here's what I wonder: Which lobbyists and advocacy groups came up with this class size law?

What were they really aiming for: Statewide disruption? The appearance of "caring about the kids?" Better test scores for 6-year-olds? Taking power and control out of the hands of local boards and teacher unions?

What heartwarming stories about small classes were the NC legislators who proposed and passed this law telling?

Can we trust policymakers to make beneficial decisions for schools?  What do you think?

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