(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.