Monday, November 07, 2016

Politics and traditional public schools are inseparable

Here in Amherst there are two education-related questions on the ballot.

The first is a state-wide question on whether or not to allow more charter schools. If I were to believe my Facebook feed, if it passes it would mean the End of Public Schools As We Know Them. My Facebook feed is wrong; allowing more charter schools will have a tiny short-term effect on the public education system. It might have a big long-term effect, but I bet parents will make much bigger changes to the way their kids get educated long before then. The second question on the Amherst ballot is a plan to replace two of our public elementary schools with one brand-new building. Judging from the lawn signs in my neighborhood, there is a lot of controversy over that plan, and I doubt it will pass.

I have sympathy for the school committee; no matter what plan they propose, they won't please everybody. The only way to please everybody would be to have half a dozen different, mostly independent schools in town and let parents and kids and teachers decide on which was best for them.

... which, from a ten-thousand-foot level, looks a lot like public charter schools ...

This is where somebody on the school committee or school administration tells me that's completely unworkable, because busing and six different principals and special education and duplicate facilities and administration.

And how our local public school system really isn't one-size-fits-all, there's a diversity of educational opportunities available inside the public school system (and I should know that-- I've got two kids at Amherst Regional High School).

And how the Massachusetts school system is one of the best in the world-- and Amherst is one of the best in the state. Why mess with a great thing, or question the judgement of people who have done such a great job so far?

Here's where I get philosophical. It seems to me there are two ways we can get what we want from other people in this world:

1) Competition. We can "vote with our feet" -- every time I choose which restaurant to eat at or which shoes to buy I'm casting a vote.

2) Politics. We can vote for or against things we like or don't like, and can try to convince a majority of our neighbors to vote with us.

Traditional public schools force us into politics-- we vote for who we want on the school committee, and vote on big decisions like how we're going to replace our old, obsolete school buildings.

Maybe there are good reasons to keep doing things that way, or maybe we're just stuck with the system we have because changing from a politics-driven system to a competition-driven system would be too disruptive and painful.

But if you're part of the traditional, politics-driven system, you shouldn't complain about passionate public debates or imply that everybody should just trust you because you're the experts (or are listening to the experts). That's just the way majority-wins systems work.

I like competition-driven systems better, maybe because I like to avoid unnecessary conflict. I'm a live-and-let-live kind of guy, if you want to send your kids to "West Point Prep" because you think the discipline will be good for them, more power to you.