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Education Thu Apr 28 2011

Again, This Time with Meaning! Accountability

Education reformers fixate on "accountability" because it is an appealing concept to citizens of a democratic republic. Accountability is a fundamental first principle of our democracy. You could sum up the phrase, "Taxation without representation is tyranny!" with the word accountability. That's what democracy is: those whom we entrust with power must be answerable--accountable--to those in whom power ultimately resides.

I'm similarly obsessed with accountability in education. Our public schools must be accountable. That's an easy thing to say: but what does it mean exactly?

Well, what are our public schools? Students are the immediate beneficiaries. Parents act in trust for children, who are unable to fully articulate their goals or advocate for them (since they don't have many legal rights), and partially fund the system. Teachers are the trained professionals entrusted to carry out the policies that would in practice achieve the system's goals. The "general public" generally wants schools to produce productive workers (broadly defined) and responsible citizens, and also funds the system.

These three groups (with students and parents theoretically forming one group) are the necessary and irreplaceable stakeholders of the public school systems--meaning, they are the public school system. Each group is a massive constituency with divergent internal views. So how do we keep the institution accountable to them?

By making sure they each have a voice in the articulation of goals and the generation of policies to meet them. "Accountability" means responsiveness to the interests of stakeholders, or of the individuals, groups, and classes who compose a system. Participation in the collective decision making is critical to accountability; otherwise its just occasionally objecting to or ratifying the will or others.

So parents have local school councils and (had) the Board of Education, before it was brought under Mayoral control; the general public has the Board of Education and city government; and teachers have the teachers' union.

The charter school movement would eliminate two of these institutions: local school councils and the teachers union. They also oppose democratization of the Board of Education, advocating fiercely for "Mayoral control." Essentially this means that everything about our public schools--goals, policies, implementation--will be determined by the Mayor with no check from any quarter.

The Mayor is elected at-large, and so the power of the people who actually compose the public school system is diluted. Rahm Emanuel was elected by 19% of the electorate, most of whom were not voting on a single issue. He also received huge sums of money from people who do not compose the school system--who don't even live in the state, much less the city--but want to have some influence on it.

How does this make the public school system more "accountable" exactly? Accountable to whom? Accountable only to the Mayor and his financial backers. The people who actually compose the public school system--students/parents and teachers--have no structural capacity to hold leadership accountable. Maybe he'll be nice and let them influence him--but he doesn't have to. When this kind of limitation is voluntary, it is no kind of limitation. It'd be like if submitting a budget to the City Council was optional.

It is interesting, and a little freaky, that the charter movement is so obsessed with "accountability" while trying to neuter the only actual accountable institutions.

School privatizers like to present the teachers union as a monolithic "special interest" no different from, say, the Broad Foundation, but we know this isn't the case. The teachers union is democratically run. We know this is true because there are regular, meaningful, and competitive elections and peaceful transfers of power. The union is funded by smaller-dollar amount dues and so is not itself dominated by one clique or individual interest. Do parents, or anybody, elect the leadership of the Broad Foundation? To whom are they accountable? To nobody but themselves.

The idea behind local school councils, before their power was progressively eroded during Mayor Daley's mayoralty, was the same. They were regularly elected, elections were competitive, and they forced school leadership to be accountable to parents in a real and visceral way.

School privatizers invent standards, and then say that teachers aren't being held accountable to their invented standards, and then classify this as a failure of "accountability." But why should Chicago Public School students, teachers, and schools be accountable to standards generated by some think tank on the other side of the country with no input whatsoever from parents, students, teachers, or even members of the public? Their stake is too remote. The only parties our schools should be accountable to are students, parents, teachers, and the city's general public. To say that accountability will be enhanced by putting all goal-defining, policy-setting, and enforcement in the hands of one person is absurd on its face.

Why is the Mayor-Elect so concerned about making our schools accountable to Eli Broad or Bill Gates, and so eager to dissolve or castrate the only bodies that actually create accountability--democratic local school councils, a democratic teachers union, and a democratically-elected Board of Education?

With a Board controlled utterly and fully by the Mayor, and a Mayor whose campaign is funded primarily by large financial institutions, the chain of accountability goes from our schools to large financial institutions, not to the constituencies that make them up. I mean this in a very formal way: under the scheme cooked up by privatizers and endorsed by our Mayor-Elect, students/parents and teachers would have almost no direct way to involve themselves in goal-defining and policy making. Only access to the Mayor will determine involvement in the process.

And, as we have seen, access to the Mayor is purchased or granted at his pleasure. How will he even know what parents, students, and teachers want? Or what they think is working and what isn't? By divination? Because he'll hear it from the people he hand-picks? And even if he knows, what if he disagrees? Can the actual people who compose the public schools do anything to force him--their public servant--to give in to their demands, or even compromise with them a little bit?

Under the Mayor-Elect's vision of the public schools, the only way parents, students, and teachers can have a role in the governing of our public schools is by defeating him in an election. They can write letters, march up and down the street, scream their heads off, but they have no real, structural way to involve themselves. They just have one shot, once every four years, to overcome the tens of millions of dollars he can raise in an instant from billionaires across the country. This creates "accountability"?

If they Mayor-Elect and his new schools CEO are successful in implementing their vision of a public school system, it will not be accountable to anyone but the Mayor-Elect.

Privatizers' terror of democracy should be telling. Demanding accountability by systematically deleting any institution or structures that compel it should be damning.

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Nate Goldbaum / May 25, 2011 4:58 PM

Well said, as usual, Ramsin.
I have one other point about unions being democractic. Unions are not only democratic "because there are regular, meaningful, and competitive elections and peaceful transfers of power." The Chicago Teachers Union also checks the power of its officers through monthly House of Delegates meetings. This body is the highest authority in the union short of a full referendum vote. Hundreds of delegates attend each monthly meeting and spend 2 to 3 hours discussing, debating and voting on the key issues facing its members.
There are about 800 delegates to represent the 29,000 teachers, social workers, nurses, teachers aides, school psychologists, etc. who make up the union. That's an average ratio of one representative for every 37 members; which is a much more direct form of democracy than any formal body in our government.

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