winter

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Saturday, January 16, 2010

Who runs the school district?

I've been following for a little less then a year now a debate going on up in Rochester over how the school district up there should be run. I wasn't seriously following it up until earlier this week. An article in the City newspaper caught my eye. It was an interview with Rochester Mayor, Bob Duffy. As far as articles go, it was fairly well written. As far as interviews go, it was very good and quite through. I've got to say, I was pretty impressed with the lack of bias in the work and it was written at a higher reading level, in my opinion, then a lot of what you find in the Democrat and Chronicle over the last few years.

Anyways, I read the article in City and found myself not exactly... thrilled with Mayor Duffy's reasoning. I suppose he did put forth a reasonable argument. If you didn't look at the history of public education in this country and just considered the matter on the basis of the contemporary situation, you could almost convince me that mayoral control of the school districts is a decent option to consider. On 13WHAM's website, there is an article explaining how the initial stage of the process is going to work for mayoral control, so it looks like this whole shindig is going to move forward.

I've got a fundamental problem with it all, however. Historically, public education was controlled by the population of the community, predominantly the parents. They elected the school board and voted upon matters as needed (like school taxes). This wasn't because of the American love of democracy, no matter how much some Constitution thumping, flag waving folks want you to see it. Sure, there may be a measure of tradition behind that, but it wasn't the primary reason. The primary reason is because the parents (and therefore the community) needed some measure of control over how their children are educated. This was to make sure that it conformed with how they were raising their children and to keep the subjects taught responsive to the needs of the community.

Now, some folks are going to say that I'm taking a far too starry-eyed "Pollyanna reads the news" approach here. And they're probably going to say the same thing on the matter of how education has been approached in the USA also, but that is their opinion and they are as entitled to it as I am to mind. I'm going to respectfully disagree with them in advance. Let me explain why I am opposed to mayoral control, for reasons beyond the fact that it runs counter to how the education of the youth of the nation has been done for generations before now. After all, tradition can be part of the problem rather then the solution. Even I will agree to that.

I oppose mayoral control of the school district because the mayor can not effectively do their job and the job of the school board. Furthermore, in a city like Rochester where the mayor's office is already dealing with the proverbial sinking ship with the economy and infrastructure suffering greatly because of things like the changing face of industry, there is far too much on their plate right now to take on additional things. (If you want to know why the Fast Ferry failed, in my opinion that's a big part of it. Mayor Johnson's folly was a combination of ignoring the real problems in Rochester and his ego. Same is true for everyone else who climbed on to that bandwagon. Again, your opinion may differ.)

I also oppose mayoral control of the school district because it sets a dangerous social precedent. When the rights of the citizens to engage in active participation in their government is curtailed, it begins the process of eroding the rights of all and pushing the country towards a system of government opposed to the democratic republic that was instituted by the Constitution. Removing the right to vote for the school board is a soft way to get the populace familiar with the idea that they can not vote. Oh, I know, somebody is going to say that I'm being paranoid, but take a second and look at this logically. (Because I see that this fad of mayoral control of the school district is starting to spread to different cities across the nation and I believe this is a very bad thing.)

Take a population and tell them that they can't do XYZ. Now, XYZ is a fairly minor thing compared to ZYX, though major elements of it are the same. After a period of time, the population becomes familiar with the policy that XYZ is just not an option for them. Because of the similarity to ZYX, they begin to view this as unimportant or minor. Other policies and actions taken by the governmental authorities against 'minor' things that are like ZYX serves to reinforce this false concept that it is also unimportant. Eventually, in the minds of the population, ZYX's importance is so eroded that it can be removed from the actions permissible to the population under the government, thereby removing various rights and privilages associated with ZYX.

Voting has already been undermined dramatically by the disconnect between our elected officials and the electorate. When actions are taken to curtail voting itself, which mayoral control of the school board does, we begin the process of removing our ability to exercise our right to participate in our government under color of law. Now, it may be that the philosophy of how governments work has changed or something since the founding of the United States of America. I doubt that, however, because there is one fundamental rule that remains correct. All governments derive their power from the consent of the governed. When the populace has reached a point where they decide they've had enough of the given government's actions, they will force a change to how they are governed. This why why feudalism is no longer in place, for example.

Additionally, I oppose mayoral control of the school district because it takes the policy decisions of the school district and additionally politicizies them. The school district is already very politicizes and, if anything, needs less of this. The school system should not be a vehicle for propagandizing and pushing political agendas. Placing control of policy into the hands of the mayor, or any other single elected official, removes the checks and balances of having different opinions. This takes a system already vulnerable to such things as propagandizing and completely removes any few protections it has from flagrant and obvious abuse.

I want my children to learn subject matter, not the agenda of the week. If a given city mayor opposes the theory of evolution, I don't want them to be able to ban it from being taught in school. If they find French Impressionism to be the best thing ever, I don't want them to require it to be the only thing taught in art class. If they hated algerbra or triginometry, I don't want them to completely remove it from the curriculum. Educational insitutions are there to broaden the student's worldview and to teach them various skills. The most important, in my opinion are the following:
  • Critical reasoning
  • Effective communication skills
  • Basic literacy and mathematics
  • A working knowledge of the hard and soft sciences
  • A working knowledge of local, national, and world history
These are all things that should be free of political agenda. A teacher's opinions should stop outside the class room door, just like a reporter's opinions should stop at the headline of their article. Anything else is irresponsible and doing a disservice to the community. If you want to stump for your favorite cause or give your opinion of things, there are places and times that are appropriate to do so. The classroom is not the place for it. I believe that mayoral control is a very large step towards requiring that.

Oh, a side note, on the matter of Creationism being taught in school and religion being taught in school. I believe it is possible to teach these things but it requires a degree of mental complexity in both the students and teacher, as well as a great deal of skill, that is frequently over simplified.

Yes, teach Creationism, but make clear that it is a theory just as Evolution is a theory. Use this as an opportunity to teach what a theory is, how theories are established, and how they are overturned. This is an excellent example to explain how the Heliocentric modle of the solar system came to be accepted upon the basis of overwhelming evidence. Make clear that Creationism is but one of many alternative theories as to how the world came to be as it is today and encourage the students to explore other theories with critical thought and weighing it upon the merits of logic and how well it is supported by evidence. You'll be doing far more for them then just spouting out what a theory is in a 6th grade class on the scientific method (by the way, an educated guess is just another way to say theory).

Yes, teach religion and philosophy. When you do so, place it into cultural context and take a non-biased perspective. In theology classes at the collegeate level, religions are taught with out the students being preached at. If it can be done at college, it can be done at the lower levels with appropriate languaged for the students and concepts introduced when students are ready to understand them. After all, you don't teach a toddler algerbra until they can understand how to count and basic mathematical functions like addition.

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