School Choice Protects Against the Tyranny of Local Majorities

justin cohen

The blogosphere gained a great voice yesterday: Justin Cohen launched a new blog. I’ve known Justin for years and admire both his intelligence and humor.

In his first post, Justin commented on my post, Value Tensions in Education Reform; he writes:

That said, after years of working on the ground, particularly in and with communities of color, I have come to view the dismissal of local democracy as equally noxious to the debate. The big problem here is that somehow we have arrived at a point wherein placing value on student achievement results is mutually exclusive to respecting the voting rights of African-American communities. There is no education reform in a world where the values of voting rights and student achievement are in conflict, for it forces communities to balance their current sovereignty against their children’s future. That is a fight that neither side can win, nor should want to fight.

Some thoughts:

1. Justin’s argument, I think, is that I was erroneously placing the values of student achievement and local democracy inapposite to each other. While I do think they are tensions between the two, the specific point I was making here was about the tension between voting (electoral power) and choice (control of tax funds). I wrote: “I view local choice as a much more effective democratic power than local voting.”

2.  When it comes to where to vest educational authority, I’m probably more of a pragmatist than Justin. Justin is right to point out that moving authority to the state level can dilute the voice of African-Americans, in that African-Americans may have local majorities but be statewide minorities. But if there is a history of African-American children being harmed by one governance structure,  and a new governance structure shows promise of reversing this trend, then I’ll generally be open to experimenting with this new governance structure.

3. I imagine there are middle ground solutions. For example, having an elected, local charter school board allows for both local democracy while eliminating the monopoly power of the traditional district. Paul Hill and Ashely Jochim’s new book points to other possible solutions.

4. Another way to think about this as school choice being a check against the tyranny of the majority. What if I happen to live in a city where the school board elections keep on being won by leaders who fail to deliver high-quality schools? If I’m rich, I can opt out. If I’m poor, I can’t opt out. My child has to attend a failing public school.

5. In many cities, the school board (the representatives of the majority) actively fights the expansion of school choice, both by enforcing neighborhood zoning and by denying the expansion of charter schools. They do this despite their historical inability to turnaround failing schools.

6. If I live in a city where leaders who protect the monopoly keep winning elections, then my major hope, in a democracy, is that another governance entity intervenes. In our country, this will either be the county, state, or federal government.

7. In an ideal world, local communities would always look after the interests of all their citizens. History has proven that we don’t live in an ideal world. In this sense, I don’t believe the voting rights of local communities should always be held sacred; rather, I think we should have checks and balances between different levels of government, so as to protect those who might be harmed by majorities.

8. I should have made this the main point of my previous post: It’s not that I’m against local electoral power, I’m just against leaving this power unchecked. In public education systems, alternative governance models and school choice provide an extremely important check on local school boards.

Justin, do you agree?

3 thoughts on “School Choice Protects Against the Tyranny of Local Majorities

  1. Heidi Landers

    I just posted a comment on Justin Cohen’s blog — thank you for bringing it to the general attention — re the conflict between the “community” and the “reformers”. I see that a man named Peter Cook also posted a very thoughtful and lengthy comment, and I agree with him. I basically said that the community seems a little conflicted about what it wants, because they don’t usually elect a pro-reform school board, yet when good charters are available (as is the case in L.A., where I live) families flock to them. LAUSD is tearing its hair out about losing market share to charters. So there is definitely a disconnect there.

  2. Darin Lim Yankowitz

    “I imagine there are middle ground solutions. For example, having an elected, local charter school board allows for both local democracy while eliminating the monopoly power of the traditional district.”

    Have you seen a model of this done well? Philosophically, I tend to favor the district model over charter because I think there’s an easier route toward autonomous, teacher-led district schools than toward local, democratic governance of non-profit charters. But this may also be because I have not seen an excellent charter school that is governed by a democratically-elected board.


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