Masters in Someone Else’s Home is No Way to Go Through Life

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

In the film Gandhi a crucial scene involves a meeting with British colonial overlords. At one point a British official plays what seems to be an ultimate trump card- in essence that His Majesty has millions of Muslim subjects in India, and without British administration a civil war would break out. Gandhi’s response: yes this is a problem, but it is our problem, not yours.

This scene came to mind when I read this Houston Chronicle article detailing the Houston Independent School District narrowly avoiding a state takeover of the district. Money quote from the article:

HISD and civic leaders are expected to gather for a celebration Wednesday at Worthing High School, which has suffered dramatic academic declines in recent years amid constant leadership turnover, persistent concerns about safety and a drain of students to school choice options.

One could spend a long time just unpacking that sentence, but I for one am happy that students at this school had the opportunity to seek a different setting, making the “drain of students” frame simply mind-blowing. There is also something deeply perverse about “celebrating” at Worthing given the state of affairs there. We get to keep things the same- hoorah!?

But in the end, kind of, yes in a sad but important way.

The Texas legislature should feel no small degree of wariness about a statute they passed that might find the Texas Education Agency taking over districts and/or closing schools. I’ve seen K-12 focus groups address the closure issue and people came across as uniformly and passionately against the entire notion of government led closures based on test scores.

On district takeovers, if not for the manifest flaws of school district democracy, we could all be doing something else with our time. School district elections are low-turnout/information affairs that sadly lend themselves readily to regulatory capture by organized employee/contractor interests. The word on the street for instance is that the AFT swept the last round of HISD school board elections.

There may be ways to improve the quality of school district democracy that could be implemented from the state level. I don’t however believe that suspending democracy, even a deeply flawed one, is one of those better ideas. No not even if it is “temporary” nor even if it is “for their own good.” Winston Churchill noted “Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

Churchill, an old-school imperialist, probably did not have many notions in common with Gandhi but when the Venn diagrams between them overlap it is probably best to pay attention. In the end it gets back to build new, don’t reform old. A district takeover is like a nuclear artillery piece- which used to be a thing– overpowered and a danger to the person those firing it.


6 Responses to Masters in Someone Else’s Home is No Way to Go Through Life

  1. Greg Forster says:

    In fact, Churchill spent his whole career opposing moves toward decolonization in India policy, Home Rule in Ireland, etc., and paid a significant price for it. The need to move in this direction was widely accepted and the most important debates were over how far and how fast to go; by opposing all moves in that direction, and doing so in his usual blunt manner, Churchill made himself an outsider.

    Rather than district takeovers, what we ought to be talking about is state governments imposing reform on district election systems. “Democracy” does not exist until democratic constitutional systems are imposed, and this imposition is by definition never itself a democratic act (because the institutions of democracy can’t exist before they’re created). When democratic institutions go bad, they can only be reformed in the same way.

    District elections are a lot like rotten boroughs. They used to be democratic when they were created, but the system has not been reformed over time to keep up with events.

    • matthewladner says:

      Agreed- it is more than a little rich to see the Little Ramona camp followers wax poetic about “democratically controlled schools” when single digit turnout rates etc. are commonplace, but it does not follow from that imo that the solution is a takeover.

      • Greg Forster says:

        But wait, I just remembered Amy Gutmann told me schools are “democratic” as long as power is in the hands of unaccountable education professionals. Never mind!

      • harriettubmanagenda says:

        Regardless of turnout, democratic control is a stupid way to run a school. Democratic control of government is better than autocratic control of government, granted, but why suppose that any form of political control of the education industry will yield a better outcome than consumer control exercised through a market?

        Democratic control of an industry turns every difference over tastes into a winner-takes-all contest which guarantees unhappy losers, who may comprise the vast majority; imagine the outcome of a State-wide vote on the one size and style of shoes we all must wear.

      • matthewladner says:

        HTA- an increasing number of parents seems to be drawing the same conclusion that you have but that was not one of the options on offer in Houston.

  2. harriettubmanagenda says:

    “You don’t think we’re just going to walk out of India [the education industry].”
    “Yes. In the end, you will walk out. Because one hundred thousand Englishmen [six million school employees] simply cannot control three hundred fifty million Indians [fifty million children and young adults] if those Indians [children and young adults] refuse to cooperate. And that is what we intend to achieve: peaceful, non-violent non-cooperation, until you yourself see the wisdom of leaving.”

    Satyagraha. Non-violent non-cooperation with evil.

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