Education & Belief: Democratic Accountability

The key question, as Charles Glenn wrote in Contrasting Models of State and School, is “How the freedom of parents to choose how their children will be educated can be balanced with the opportunity for educators to create and work in schools with a distinctive character, and how both of these in turn should be limited by some form of public accountability to ensure that all children in a society receive a generally comparable and adequate education.” American public education does not achieve this balanced ideal, but many of its proponents worry that a civil society model as practiced in Europe and Asia would be worse.

The prominent political philosopher Amy Gutmann speaks openly about the challenges of democratic education, such as the fact that it cannot be neutral but is, rather, moral and teleological in nature. Rather than consider pluralistic education as a way out of this difficulty, she insists that the current state-control framework of American education “is an essential welfare good for children as well as the primary means by which citizens can morally educate future citizens.” She contrasts “public schooling” with the market mechanisms of private schooling that she believes will lead to unalloyed parental control. Gutmann thinks American public schooling is imperfect (she would like less bureaucracy, for instance), but believes that the practice of what she calls “democratic deliberation” achieves the optimal balance between the interests of the state, parents, and educators.

These are questionable assertions for two reasons. First, far from being subject to “democratic deliberation,” the state control model we now have privileges the employment interests of teachers above the interests of parents or children – as a forthcoming book by Glenn demonstrates (State and School: The American Model and How it Grew).  Indeed, it would be difficult to imagine a system less amenable to “democratic deliberation” than the one we currently have.

Two recent books illustrate the extent of teacher union control of education, over and against other stakeholders. Steven Brill’s Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools details recent attempts of mayors, parent groups, and the federal government itself to change the culture of schooling from protectionism to accountability. Brill’s original article about dismissals in New York City (“The Rubber Room“) led to Class Warfare, a national report on just how arduous it is to get rid of bad teachers (everything from the 5,044 pages worth of transcripts to “process” a single bad teacher out of the system, to the high price tag attached to slight changes in union contracts).

Terry Moe’s Special Interests: Teachers Unions and America’s Public Schools provides another account. He argues that an imbalance lies at the heart of local and state educational politics: no other voice – not parents, not the business community, not anyone – even comes close to the interest represented by the wealth and election-box power of the teachers unions. This imbalance affects every aspect of school structure and is given legal sanction in union contracts – from the length of school day, to limits on parent-teacher conferences, to a prohibition on principals’ visiting classrooms, to the frequency of faculty meetings, to the strict salary “lanes” that raise salaries mechanically and irrespective of performance, to detailed dismissal procedures so cumbersome that in 2006-07, only 8 out of 55,000 teachers in New York City were asked to leave the district. Well-meaning principals, parents and education reformers don’t stand a chance.

The second reason to doubt Gutmann’s claim that public education is democratic is the current state of the law on parents’ rights over their children’s education. In the 19th and early 20th centuries the courts took parental views on education seriously. That is no longer true. Today, circuit courts do not grant special scrutiny to issues of conscience in education except in a few, carefully-defined situations. A series of recent rulings suggest that once a child is enrolled in public school, her parents relinquish influence over the content and process of educating her.

American parents are politically marginalized and legally disenfranchised. A less plausible example of “democratic deliberation” would be hard to conceive. The right question is, democratic compared to what? Compared to the wide variety of school types in other democratic nations, and the high achievement and parental investment that follows. There is no evidence that parents in Singapore, England or the Netherlands feel shut out of educational deliberation – quite the opposite.  In fact, a more pluralistic public education could open up new possibilities for democratic participation in the public square.

I think the more serious concern with pluralistic public education lies in the opposite direction: government overreach. The recent  controversy over HHS regulations requiring religiously affiliated institutions to pay for contraception services illustrates the uncertainty of whether American culture and jurisprudence will actually support meaningful differences within civil society. Would government funding of sectarian schools (directly or indirectly) or a large-scale voucher program lead to a similar overreach that threatened core values of pluralistic institutions? In other countries, government oversight of schools focuses on curricular standards and school facilities, not on religious content or school culture.

This issue has been raised by educational theorists. Walter Feinberg, for instance, values the place of confessional schools in civil society and understands the benefit to being raised within an intentional tradition. However, he worries that some religious schools inhibit critical reflection and inflict psychological harm, such as on gay and lesbian students who are told (in some schools) that such behavior is sinful. Feinberg does not suggest that non-public schools should be coerced towards a certain ideal of tolerance, but he perhaps unintentionally lays its predicate by discussing the state’s “interest” in private schools which might be increased if they received public funds.

These concerns about the balance between religious liberty and state sanctions are serious, but they are not new, nor unique to education. If we were mindful of protecting religious liberty against technocratic rule, a more pluralistic educational environment seems to offer more in the way of democratic deliberation and civic engagement, not less. As such, it would comport with democratic principles far better than the state-control (or union-control) model we live with.

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