Democracy In American Public Education

In the final analysis, the only advantage that democracy has over a much more efficient totalitarian system is the ability to teach its citizens to think out of the box by ensuring everyone has access to a great public education. The present glaring contradiction between attaining the pragmatism necessary for maintaining a viable democracy and our present education system is that it has not been able to fulfill the function of sufficiently educating the future citizens of this country for a long time. The only reason that it was able to get away with it for so long is that we only reached the physical boundaries of this incredibly rich country during the massive westward migration during and after WWII. Finally, waste of this country's most vital resource -- it's youth -- can no longer continue in what is becoming more and more a highly competitive world. The failed factory model that still holds sway of the majority of large urban public education systems in this country is that of a system that vests exclusive power in the leadership and steadfastly refuses to empower students, teachers, and parents who have a crucial contribution to make in the promulgation of a responsive and effective public education model.

In order to be wise in the present debate over fixing public education, no element in the mix can remain aloof from the process and all stakeholders must be willing to subject themselves to an internal audit of principles and practices conducted by those outside of public education to ensure its integrity through impartiality. As a first principle, two-way accountability must become a foundational principle in this process. In reading Professor Charles Taylor Kerchner's new book Learning From L.A.- Institutional Change in American Public Education, it becomes clear that the undoing of all reform proposals that Professor Kerchner addresses throughout his excellent book have in common the inability of holding LAUSD accountable. LAUSD's attitude was actually expressed most succinctly by a remark my principal made several years ago during a faculty meeting, "We just have to wait out this latest round of reforms."

In reading through Professor Kerchner's discussion of the March 15, 1993 LEARN petition, LAUSD is seen as the entity that "harmed and endangered children, failed to educate its students, and it lagged behind more successful urban school district facing and solving similar problems." In 2010, nothing has changed. The existence of LAUSD in its present militantly ignorant form is tolerated because of its huge budget and political power, which nobody seems willing to stand up to. It must be clear to those like myself that have been around LAUSD for many years that any reform that doesn't address the real restructuring of LAUSD is doomed to failure. Maybe that is why so many educators are so cynical at the present prospects for fixing public education.

Not to be dissuaded, let me give some specific example of what real reform might look like. I would like to offer how my present adversarial situation with LAUSD might illustrate how a more enlightened approach might achieve better outcomes. Before doing this, I think it is important that we recognize that regulations and behavior stand the best chance of success if there is real buy in from the population that they are supposed to regulate. Failure to attain this buy in must be met with reasonable consequences for noncompliance from the population one hopes to regulate. This country's misguided attempt at Prohibition in the 1920s and the presently expensive and failed war against illegal drug usage are excellent prior examples of public policies that were doomed from the inception, because their was no clear means of enforcement. With public education there is a clear means of enforcement, but up until now an entity as powerful as LAUSD has had more power than any agency state or federal that tried to regulate it. It stands to reason that if a consistent and equally enforced policy were enforced throughout LAUSD across all classified, certificated, and administrative levels there would at least be a chance for a positive result.

1. The standard of behavior that teachers are held to is not applied to administrators or other above the line employees involved in public education. When I filed a Public Education Relations Board action against my principal, the whole process was centered on my being required to challenge an action by my principal that was clearly in violation of the Collective Bargaining agreement. As an administrator, she had no disincentive for acting in a manner that was clearly against District policy. Even after some of her improper actions were turned around, nothing was done with regard to other actions she had taken in furtherance of her scheme and, most importantly, she suffered no sanctions for her behavior, which almost certainly insures that she will do it again.
2. This was also true when my principal attempted to displace me from my job even though I had significantly more seniority than the vast majority of teachers at my school, again the whole process required me to seek redress. Even when I was successful, no procedure existed to question why the principal had brought this clearly bad-faith action for my displacement.
3. Even though I have presented documents and testimony unequivocally showing that there is no factual basis for the bad faith charges my principal has used to bring two notices of unsatisfactory acts and two pending orders of suspension without pay, nobody within LAUSD has bothered to look at this evidence or question if there is any honest and objective justification to file these charges in the first place. The railroad tracks at LAUSD only run in one direction.

In Lord Acton's famous letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887 he said, "Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely." If there are no consequences or checks and balances on the power given to principals or others with administrative power, what is to stop them from acting in their own self-interest in violation of their fiduciary duty to the organization they work for and the employees they are charged with administering? In the PERB action I brought against my principal, David Vidaurrazaga of LAUSD Staff Relations in testifying under oath on her behalf made the following statement in response to this question: What do you do to monitor and control what your principals do? "We pick good principals and we trust our principals, so it is not necessary for us to do anything to control their behavior." Are LAUSD administrators somehow immune to Lord Acton's caveat or is Mr. Vidaurrazaga incredibly naive and typical of an attitude within administrative echelons at LAUSD that support principals no matter what the facts are?

Is no enforceable standard of behavior consistent with real reform? Given that administrators face a magnitude of decisions far beyond what any one teacher faces, we might even posit a standard of enforceable administrative conduct that is much more lenient than that offered to teachers, but no standards at all that are comparable to teachers and enforced as such? Having no real and enforceable standard of conduct for administrators is the precise formula for the chaos that LAUSD has been experiencing for years in the triage mode of operations that has become standard operating procedure at the District. If administrators were offered tenure, albeit under different terms than teachers, there would no longer be the tacit incentive to go along with administrative party line that the majority of administrators can now only challenge at their own peril.

While there is presently a great deal of discussion in the media as to how hard it is to fire a teacher, I would make the following remarks:

1. Given the existing mismatch of power between teachers and administrators, it should be hard.
2. Consistent administrative lack of due diligence in proceeding against incompetent or dangerous teacher is equally responsible for the protracted nature of this process that can stretch out for years.
3. A more streamlined process designed to address the malfeasance of both administrators and teachers could easily rectify this process while respecting the legal rights of all concerned.
4. The present Star Chamber nature of proceeding against an estimated 200 LAUSD teachers who are facing termination makes no distinction between those guilt of egregious crimes and misdemeanors and those who are being persecuted for standing up for the standards of public school education that LAUSD says it stands for. In reading LAUSD's own Whistle Blower policy, teachers and others are under an affirmative duty to report fraud and other malfeasance, but to presently do so puts one in jeopardy of harassment because there is no standard of accountability for administrators in place.

If we step back from the present adversarial nature of interaction between all constituents to the education process, it would seem a rather straightforward matter to propose a more viable model that rests on the strengths and clear consequences for actions- both positive and negative- of all concerned. When I watch our local police park their squad car in the red zone at the corner of Hauser and Wilshire while going in to the IHop, I wonder where they learned the idea that those who are responsible for the administration of power do not have to follow the rules. If public education changed from a top-down model circa 1952 from somewhere in homogeneous Kansas, I cannot help but wonder what the positive ripple effect might be over time throughout our society. Image students being told that their privileges are contingent upon their willingness to take on responsibility in running the school and being held responsible for discipline. Clearly, students are more likely to implement and support rules that they have input into. In addition, younger students are also more easily formed into the academic culture of a school if they see the students older than them being given respect based on their work and not their age. Teachers who have a dialogue and maybe even choose a tentative administrator based on the temporary consensus that this person has are much more likely to buy into supporting that person's vision for the school than the present aloof style of most administrators who presently derive none of their power from those they govern. If democracy is good enough to run American society, why must our school continue to be run by Czars and Czarinas?

Somebody once told me a story about a truck that got stuck in a tunnel in West Virginia causing a back up for miles along the interstate. All sorts of police, fire, and other government services were called to the site to try and extract the firmly wedged truck from out of the tunnel. This little 10 year old kid rode up to the site of this emergency on his bicycle with his friends. After studying the situation, at a certain point he went up to the police captain that seemed to be in charge of the frantic scene where different and expensive attempts were being instituted to try and extract the truck to no avail. The little boy said to the captain, "Sir, I know how to get the truck out." The captain had no patience for the kid, given the ever more desperate situation that he faced as night was rapidly approaching. Finally, after annoying the captain once too often, the captain turned on the kid and said, "Alright!, smart guy, what would you do?" To which the kid replied, "Let the air out of the tires." While the misguided leadership of LAUSD never seem to tire of disingenuous behavior, I would still let some air out to see if we can finally get real public education reform moving.


04 2010


I have a degree in psychology, which I have found to be useless. And I am planning on going back to school and getting a Masters in Creative Writing, because I enjoy writing and would love to learn more techniques to make myself a better writer. I am worried, however, that this degree will not open up many doors in terms of the job market (just as my psychology degree has failed to do). Any thoughts? Thank you..

i came close to dying last month. It made me aware that life is too short to be lived provisionally. The American Indian has a statement that is an affirmation on how I try to live my life: Today is a good day to die.

By living for money or retirement or your parents, today is not a good day to die. While you might not be able to measure your success in a huge salary, it sounds like you would be less likely to have dis ease if you were a writer.

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