Friday, July 23, 2010

Having a say in school closings

From the 26 July 2010 Greater Niagara Newspapers

By Bob Confer

I recently wrote a column in which I discussed the need to return to a more localized approach to schooling in which the teachers, school boards, and parents were empowered to determine the curriculum for their schoolchildren and teach accordingly. Nowadays, such local control is grossly subdued as the federal and state governments dictate what and how the teachers can teach, making for a standardized and markedly-dumber student body.

It was fitting that the column came out just before the New York Senate introduced a piece of legislation that would further erode the significance of the community-driven approach to education. Rather than focusing on curriculum, this new attack would aim its sights on the physical environment in which the students learn. The bill was introduced by Senator Kevin Parker of Brooklyn, mirroring a companion bill in the Assembly that’s cosponsored by a trio of WNY legislators (Sam Hoyt, Crystal Peoples-Stokes and Mark Schroeder) and is intended to create the Commission on Education in the 21st Century. The Commission would be charged to evaluate the operational and cost structures of the entire educational system in the Empire State and recommend which schools/districts should close and consolidate, recommendations that would be put into law by the legislature and Governor.

This is eerily similar to the infamous Berger Commission which a few years back swept through the state with its findings on what hospitals and care centers needed to be closed or have their functions re-assigned. As with the Berger Commission, the state government is overstepping its bounds with the Education Commission. In the case of the Berger Commission, the state interfered in the marketplace and told private enterprises what they could and could not do while, with the Education Commission, the state will be telling communities and local taxing jurisdictions (the school districts) how to do things.

In both scenarios, New York probably may have the upper hand due to its long-running and wrong-headed influence in both functions whereby it substantially funds their operations, giving (recirculating) billions to hospitals or schools. Right or wrong (I know it’s the latter), but definitely because of the giveaways, the state’s bureaucracy has the ability to control what happens since it has a vested interest in the outcome of its investments, showcasing the flaws in mixed economies and mixed governments that strip people of the true personal and community freedom associated with free markets and representative government.

Taxpayers, parents, and school boards – all of them the people who, besides the kids, matter the most in this equation - won’t have a say in the future of their schools; they’ll be forced to do what the state says. Remember the activism that occurred statewide when residents were told the local hospitals that birthed their children or saved their lives were set to close? That ire will be nothing compared to what will happen when a faceless and unaccountable government entity tells people that their neighborhood school will be closed or their district – sometimes the only thing that binds a community – will be devoured by a nearby one.

Such decisions - and they are hard ones - need to happen. Statewide, we have too many schools, too many teachers, too many administrators and too many redundant operations. All of those cost taxpayers too much money. But, the design and implementation of the plans to temper such waste are best left in the hands of the local voters and the school boards they empower. Only they know the needs, expectations and limitations of their local residents and their children. Let them decide.

So, how do we make that happen?

First, we must contact our legislators and ask that they vote “no” on the Education Commission. That may prove to be a difficult undertaking as its fashionable for senators and assemblypeople to trumpet the consolidation of school districts (mind you, this is a state legislature that can’t clean its own house). But, if they hear from enough citizens (not to mention the school unions) they may change their tune.

Secondly, we must pursue other options. Earlier this year the New York Reorganization and Empowerment Act (penned by current gubernatorial candidate Andrew Cuomo) became law. This fine piece of legislation allows voters and town/village boards to easily initiate the process to dissolve or consolidate their towns, villages and special districts. School districts, though, were not included in the Act. But, they deserve similar legislation. If Cuomo becomes governor (which is almost certain), this would be something for him to champion at the urging of a populace that deserves the right to manage its own schools.


Chris Flynn said...

Bob: I see you're still on the Big Government is bad bandwagon! Unfortunately, you've lost focus on the source of the difficulty with this issue. Time to revisit Walt Kelly & his pal, Pogo: the enemy is us. You lament that taxpayers, parents and school boards won't have a say if the Education Commission comes to town. The problem is, the taxpayers and parents already have that voice; we have all chosen not to use it! The school boards- you know, the 730 distinct units in NY, all with attendant personnel & infrastructure expenses- shouldn't have a say. They are only interested in their own self-preservation; despite that "Its all about the kids" malarkey.
So, if the only interested parties won't or shouldn't have a voice, I suggest it is precisely the point of "Government" to step into the void and do something. That is precisely what we elect them for; not for naming State rocks or declaring "Bob Confer Day" (however well-deserved). The proof, they say, is in the pudding. Just look at the aftermath of the Berger Commission. Even after the Government stepped in and usurped private enterprise's prerogative, there have not been mass deaths due to closed hospitals. Just as the hospital "industry" was unable (due, primarily, to counterproductive insurance and government capital financing schemes)to reorganize itself, the public education industry is amenable to - no, requires- outside solutions being imposed upon itself. Don't worry, little Suzy will still learn how to read, she just won't have 12 administrators taking credit for it.

Chris Flynn
Amherst, NY

Larry Castellani said...

Chris, it’s not a question of “Big” government. It’s a matter of an inordinately centralized and bureaucratized government of professional politicians and technocrats who have come progressively to eviscerate and dominate local autonomy since the Civil War. It’s embarrassingly simplistically to invoke “free will” and arbitrarily presume the people just “choose” not to use their voice. People don’t just choose to be de-politicized. This is ahistorical, uncritical non-sense. There is a complex history of the struggle between the “localists” vs the “centralists” which localism for a variety of reasons has lost. And we are now paying the price, given the self-contradictory Liberal Democracy that has never solved the conflict really, nor even addressed it’s embodiment in the ambiguities of the Declaration of Independence and US Constitution.
I don’t know what you mean exactly by the people only being interested in their own “self-preservation.” Given a society of mass alienated “individualists” who have bought into the primacy of individualist ideology and the equally individualist Human Rights crap that has helped to further eviscerate the real primacy of community, it’s not surprising that they are all ‘looking out for themselves.’ It’s hard to think about the good of the whole, when you can’t see past your next paycheck and a mass of unemployed people who believe they ought to pull themselves up by their bootstraps even though they don’t have any.
When you say the government should step into the void, I think we should firstly note the government has been instrumental in creating the void at least since the New Deal, which was a bad deal. Disenfranchised mass individualist pseudo-democracies are not just chosen by a mass of free individuals blessed with their individual rights. They don’t just choose to create such an apolitical ‘void.’
There may not have been mass deaths after the Berger Commission. But you assume too much, namely, that ‘little Suzie can read.’ You’ve missed the mass death of literacy. Little Suzy might get through 17magazine or a be able to listen to a 90 second video before being distracted by the next bit of American cultural spectacle, but her reading skills are minimal and her thinking skills are hard to find. Moreover her grasp of history and politics is probably non-existent.
I agree there are too many administrators. I don’t agree that there are too many teachers. We may spend too much money on Education but given the billions we waste in Iraq and Afghanistan I think it’s the best investment of our money.
So I suggest that the spirit of Bob’s critique is pointed in the right direction. How consolidation should happen however is the prerogative of the communities who should be left alone to try to figure out what community and its concomitant educational practices should be.
As long as Big Brother is left to constitute the content and methods of Education, then our graduates will probably continue to reproduce inadequate and self-destructive critiques of their communities such as we witness with Chris’ shortsighted dismissal of the power of people living in real communities. But unfortunately those who identify with “Big Government” will fall prey to “outside solutions” “imposed” upon them. They will even come to believe, like Chris, that that’s what we have government for: to take care of us because we don’t really want to.
Poor Suzy. I hope she learns the lessons of Orwell’s 1984 better than Chris.