Monday, July 22, 2013

The Buck Has To Stop With Us

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 . . . ~Winston Churchill

My wife is a businesswoman, a lifelong entrepreneur. When I met her she was president of her own small business. She is currently a CEO. Over our more than quarter century of married life, working for companies both large and small, she has never held a title less lofty than senior vice president. In other words, as long as we've been together, she has always been at or near the top of whatever corporate pyramid in which she finds herself operating, which means that the buck most often stops with her. When decisions need to be made, she makes them. Indeed she tends to consult with others, asking for input, taking advice, looking for some sort of consensus, and soliciting buy-in, because she's actually good at what she does, but the point is that she doesn't have to. As the chief executive, once she's convinced it's a good idea or the right direction, that's the end of discussion, now it's time to get busy.

I'm not a businessperson, but I understand why they place such a high value on this kind of efficiency. The free market is a face-paced, eat-or-be-eaten, shark-infested place. Opportunity only knocks once. There isn't always time for careful deliberation, let alone a democratic process. This is why good CEOs make the big bucks when their gambles pay off, and, in theory at least, why theirs are the heads that roll should those decisions turn out to not lead toward greater profit. 

And believe me, it works like this with a sort of beautiful brutality in the small business world where there is no place to hide. That executives in larger corporations are able to survive their bad decisions by skillfully shoving blame downward toward their innocent underlings, who then pay with their jobs, is one of the gross injustices and profit-sucking inefficiencies of gigantic hierarchies. It's why I'm such an admirer of successful entrepreneurs and doubter of those who have simply shown a talent for the politics of climbing a corporate ladder. I'm not a businessperson, but I've lived it long enough to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the corporate model: it's good for some things, not for others, and the bigger it gets, the less of a meritocracy it becomes, at least on the human level.

I am a teacher in a cooperative preschool, a model that is democratic to its very core. Every family who enrolls a child in our school is an equal owner of the school. If you have two kids enrolled, you get two votes. We all vote on our budget and even if opportunity later knocks or disaster strikes, our board can only authorize extra-budetary expenses up to $50: everything else has to be put up to a vote of the entire community, and I'm proud to say that some 90 percent of our votes, on matters financial or otherwise, are decided by full consensus, but usually only after sometimes extensive and exhaustive discussion. This makes people like my wife want to pull her hair out, and sometimes it makes me want to pull my hair out, but at the end of the day, I'll hold our "business model" up against any other model out there.  It may take us longer, and the process lacks the decisive clarity of a corporate dictatorship, but democracy is not nearly as prone to error, and blame, like credit, is always shared equally. No one ever said democracy would be fast or easy, but it's the best thing we have going.

Of course, our objective is not profit, but rather education, and contrary to such corporatizing initiatives as Common Core Standards and standardized testing, education is not a destination, but rather a journey, which is why our "process," as opposed to "product," is so vitally important, even if it sometimes makes us want to pull our hair out. When it comes to educating our children, a project essential to a functioning democracy, a journey in which every citizen, whether you have children or not, has a stake, we would be fools to turn it over to the dictatorial model of for-profit business.

Yet that is exactly what the corporate education reformers would have us do.

The Center for Media and Democracy has recently published a special report on the American Legislative and Exchange Council (ALEC), an organization that veteran journalist Bill Moyers calls, "the most influential corporate-funded political force most of America has never heard of," one with a goal to "increase corporate profits at the public expense without public knowledge." ALEC is funded by a veritable who's who of US and international corporations, and has recently come to the public's attention as lead backers of the controversial "stand your ground" laws that came into tragic focus during the recent George Zimmerman trial in Florida. What ALEC has been doing since 1983 as been quietly writing "model legislation," always with the goal of channeling public funds into private pockets, on a wide range of fronts, including education.

If your state provides vouchers to private, for-profit, and religious schools, that's the result of ALEC sponsored legislation.

If your state has recently lowered teacher certification standards and is engaged in overt teacher's union busting, that's ALEC.

If your state provides private school tuition tax credits, that's ALEC.

If your state mandates that teachers "teach the controversy," rather than the science about things like evolution and global warming, that's ALEC.

If your state has a "parent trigger," whereby a 50 percent plus one vote of a school's parent community can convert the entire school, irrevocably, into a charter, that's ALEC.

If your state has protected charter schools from democratic accountability, wresting control from the hands of elected school boards, that's ALEC.

If your state is using tax payer dollars on unaccountable online "schools" in which a single teacher instructs hundreds of stay-at-home kids via the internet, that's ALEC.

This is just a partial list. ALEC has been responsible for hundreds of education-related laws right across the US over the past three decades. You may well have supported some of them. They are very good at marketing, coming up with fuzzy-sounding names for their initiatives, but make no mistake, like any good corporate entity, they are focused like a laser on the ultimate goal of a full privatization of public education, which turns education into a commodity, students into human resources, defines "good schools" as a profitable ones, and views any kind of democratic input from citizens as cause for pulling out one's hair.

Listen, I obviously have my opinion about ALEC and I'm not alone. There is a good reason why they strive to operate in the dark: most citizens, even those who tend to support conservative and pro-business policies, don't like this sort of lack of transparency. And the truth is that whenever ALEC's involvement in legislation comes to light, it almost always turns the public's attention against it. For instance, dozens of corporations have been forced to disassociate themselves from ALEC recently due to customer protests over their support for "stand your ground" laws, citizens exercising their democratic and economic rights, something that is impossible to do without transparency.

So this post is my attempt to create some transparency about this shadowy corporate lobbying group's involvement in public education. Here is a complete list of ALEC's 2013 education bills. You may still support some or all of their initiatives, but at least now you'll be doing so with fuller knowledge, which is what an educated populace is all about.

But before I leave you to your day, I want to quote the conclusion from the special report:

When the ALEC's cash-for-kids model is put before voters, it is resoundingly rejected. In 27 statewide referenda on the topic, voters rejected vouchers on average 2-1. But as long as ALEC "models" continue to garner bipartisan support facilitated by corporate campaign contributions or are slipped into state budgets in the dead of night -- ALEC will have continued success with the "transformation" of the American educational system into a profit-driven enterprise . . . The ALEC Education agenda not only "converts a public good into something private," says (Chair of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis at the University of Wisconsin Julie) Mead, but private schools "don't have the same responsibility (as public schools) to serve everybody, which diminishes public access, oversight and accountability." . . . "There is a saying, 'democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.' The public school system is the same way," Mead says. "It has problems, and can be better, but has served us pretty well for 150 years."

I'm not against business or corporations, but I do understand their limitations, and they are fundamentally anti-democratic. As a model, it's a good one for making money, but it's a lousy one for something as important as education in a democracy, because in a democracy, the buck has to stop with us.

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Nancy Schimmel said...

Thanks for this. I went to public schools in California back when they were among the best in the nation, and they were darn good. Privatization is not the answer. Training teachers well and then letting them teach instead of giving them a script is one answer, and making sure that kids have good nutrition and good air to breathe is another.

Zac said...

We also need to redefine what success means. In our current competitive society, status is important and many people in power see no problem with knocking off someone's paycheck to increase their own. I envision a more relation-based definition of success, in which our value is judged not on the number in our bank account but the quality and breadth of our relationships.