strategic and open-ended politics

The Washington, DC public school where my daughter used to study and my wife used to teach is a little chaotic, inefficient, and inequitable, but it is also very diverse, participatory, and tolerant. It has its successes: academic, ethical, and cultural. In other words, it is a public institution (and a community) that can easily flourish or fail–or do a bit of both at the same time. Many adults devote attention and passion to trying to make it flourish, rarely in unison but with overlapping values and goals.

One of the most obvious problems that this particular school faces is the system’s bureaucracy, which is often arbitrary and wasteful. Charter schools are permitted to operate independently of “downtown.” They have grown to such an extent that more than half of Washington’s public school population now attends charters. So whether to turn our old school into a charter is an obvious issue for discussion. As a matter of fact, I didn’t notice much talk about charters–partly because many people were ideologically opposed to them, and partly because a group of parents had actually left the school to launch a charter. But it’s easy to imagine a conversation beginning.

With that background, consider two ways that a charter debate might unfold within a school like ours:

1. Strategic politics: Advocates favor charters (in general) for several quite different reasons. Some see them as means to introduce competition into education. Others see them as opportunities for teachers to obtain professional autonomy and dignity. For either group, an individual charter school is an experiment designed to test a general principle. That principle can generalize, not only beyond the individual school, but beyond education altogether. For instance, libertarians have seen charters as a way to demonstrate that competition can improve outcomes even for one of the most traditional and accepted functions of government–the school. If charters work, libertarians feel they gain an argument in favor of a different kind of society, which is also why some of their opponents try to block charters. Again, libertarians provide only one example; there are also leftist charter-advocates who want to test principles of localism and teacher-control.

Unless you are an unethical ideologue, you must care about local issues, such as the impact of any policy on individual kids and the proper timing, risk, cost, and inconvenience of a particular change. You should also be open to the possibility that your experiment will fail. Yet if you are strategic, you believe that society as a whole would be better off if your theory were applied more generally, and you are right to look for opportunities to test it responsibly. From that perspective, a school is a chance to try the theory.

2. Open-ended politics: Members of our old school community might not be interested in charters, pro or con. They might care instead about what’s good and bad in their own school and how to improve it. In other words, their unit of analysis might be the building and the people in it, not something as general as charters, let alone competition or professionalism. Each participant in such a debate would have slightly different objectives and different beliefs about what works. But they would share a primary concern for the particular institution.

Most people will bring into such particularistic discussions some prior opinions about general concepts, such as bureaucracies, charters, teachers, competition, liberalism, etc. But if their focus is on the school itself, such concepts will arise as just one type of consideration among others. Instead of debating whether charters advance a general cause, they may be concerned about the school principal (who happens to be good at her job), and ask how she would fare if the school became a charter. Or they might worry about the effects of any controversial change on the cohesion of their community. For them, turning into a charter competes for attention and credibility against modest, everyday changes, such as beefing up the fifth-grade curriculum or raising more money at the annual auction. They look inside the “black box” of the school and are concerned about each teacher, curriculum, test, and rule.

I am not against strategic politics. I have my own general beliefs and I think they matter. But I think that open-ended politics is:

  • Under-studied, notwithstanding some great work by the likes of Harry Boyte, Lewis Friedland, Archon Fung, Jenny Mansbridge, Carmen Sirianni, and Mark E. Warren. There is incalculably more research about interest groups and ideologies than particularistic, open-ended public work.
  • Under-resourced, because vast quantities of money and skill are devoted to various kinds of strategic politics, but hardly anyone subsidizes or rewards open-ended politics.
  • Rather counter-cultural, because a group of Americans who assemble today to discuss an issue are quick to seize on a general cause and look for “messages” and strategies to persuade others.
  • Disfavored by modern policies, which often implement very general theories. (An interesting exception, however, may be the charter school movement itself, if you think that a charter creates an opportunity for open-ended politics.)
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