“… our right & property are now the sport
of ignorant unprincipled State legislatures.”
William Plummer, 1787
The debate over local versus mayoral control of schools has spawned a number of tomes (Ken Wong, The Education Mayor, and Joseph Viteritti, When Mayors Take Charge, seemingly endless panels, and, I am sure numerous doctoral dissertations are in progress.
In the 1780’s a similar battle was taking place: debtors, farmers, small taxpayers, the overwhelming majority of voters, many of whom behind in their taxes, pressured local legislators for relief from their tax/debt burdens, with considerable success.
Today, Mayor Bloomberg sees discontent among parents, advocates, stakeholders, and legislators as interfering with his attempts to reform a “failed” school system.
Woody Holton, in his prize winning book, Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution, 2007, paints the founders, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Governeur Morris and John Adams, as seeing the constitutional convention as an opportunity to challenge “…the thirteen legislatures that had ridden to the farmers’ rescue … allowed debtors to satisfy their creditors with property … even pine barrens and old horses … instead of hard money.”
In a private letter to Thomas Jefferson, a month before penning Federalist # 10, Madison wrote, “”Divide et impera (divide and conquer), the reprobated axiom of tyranny is under certain circumstances, the only policy by which a republic can be administered on just principles.”
Holton sees the Framers as believing that the major problem of the 1780’s was an excess of democracy.
For Madison, cracking down on the political power of debtors and taxpayers would end the terrible recession that had followed the Revolutionary War. He “…spoke for many of his contemporaries when he asserted that in any given society ‘the most enlightened and impartial people would be outnumbered by the unreflecting multitude'”
James Wilson, a signer of the Constitution agreed, “Bad elections proceed from the smallness of their districts which give an opportunity to bad men to intrigue themselves into office.”
Some may see Michael Bloomberg as acting in the spirit of Madison, in the spirit of the founders.
The urban sociology of the 60’s, a decade stricken by inner city riots proffered the “answer” was empowerment, empowering inner city communities by granting to them control over city services, especially the public schools. In New York City, the laboratory of change, the Ford Foundation funded a study (“Reconnection for Learning“) that evolved from three demonstration districts to a decentralized school system, thirty-two independent, self-governed districts, lead by elected school boards with wide ranging fiscal and personnel powers.
The State legislators that created the law dominated the election of school board members. In the poorest communities of color, and a few middle class communities, school boards became the dispensers of political patronage, including pay for jobs and the support of local political machines. (a Bronx political club with tentacles into schools was “affectionately” called the “Ali Baba” Democratic Club).
In spite of scandal after scandal the law remained unchanged from 1970 to 1997, when all personnel decisions were removed from boards and vested solely in the superintendents.
The seven member Central Board members were appointed, one by each borough president and two by the mayor. Esmerelda Simmons, a Dinkens appointee paints a bleak picture of a board riven by petty politics.
Bloomberg’s seizure of the control of schools can be compared with the stealthy conversion of the unwieldy Articles of Confederation to the Constitution, the document that created our federal system, and according to Woody Holton, seized power from the State legislatures.
The New York Post relates that Shirley Huntley, a State Senator from Queens, offered to trade her vote to support mayoral control if the principal of the school where her daughter worked as a Parent Coordinator, was fired. A classic example of the politics that echoed throughout the system in the days of decentralization.
Detroit schools are in total meltdown, the elected school board is at war with a State appointed fiscal monitor and an outside consultant is planning a massive school reorganization. Philadelphia schools are embarking on school closings and and the creation of many charter schools. California Governor Schwarzenegger is proposing a range of legislation to comply with the Obama/Duncan initiatives, vigorously opposed by teacher unions.
Louis Gerstner, former CEO of IBM, in a Wall Street Journal op ed called for the collapsing of the 16,000 elected school boards into seventy mega boards.
Is Michael Bloomberg, and mayors and governors across the nation, in the spirit of James Madison and the founders, marginalizing elected school boards and elected officials by creating school management systems free of the passions of the local prejudices, and formerly powerful unions, eliminating divisive opinions, and imposing their views? Is Bloomberg acting in the spirit of Madison?
The Obama/Duncan/Bloomberg seizure of the direction of America’s schools will be dissected for years to come. Those of us who toil in classrooms see this coup d’etat as tragic, ignoring children, parents and teachers, and imposing an ill fated philosophy of data, impersonal and arrogant.
The dissertations will muse over the data, the politics, and ultimately write the history of today.