The Paradox of Regulation

I found Mark’s recent post on ideology quite interesting, particularly the question it raises about community control of schools. As I wrote in my comments, it seems to me that education reform is currently geared towards increased centralization of power, with local communities given little say in the direction their neighborhood schools may take. Mayoral control, the Common Core standards, No Child Left Behind: the dominant trends in education policy all seem designed to freeze parents and communities out of their children’s schools.

In principle, there’s a lot wrong with this approach. Most of us think parents should have some say in how their children are raised, and as Americans we all probably have some knee-jerk, “don’t tread on me” distrust of centralized authority. This distrust of government raises an interesting paradox, which I’ll call the paradox of regulation.

On one hand, if we believe in real democracy, we must believe that communities should have significant power over community institutions like public schools. On the other hand, we’ve often seen that without some regulatory authority, local communities often pursue policies that are fundamentally anti-democratic (such as the radical privatization-of-public-schools experiment taking place in Louisiana). Similarly, without federal intervention, discriminatory policies like Jim Crow might still be the norm in much of the U.S.

So, things to start to get circular: without regulation, communities may pursue policies that disenfranchise large segments of the population. With regulation, communities may be frozen out of the political process; regulation thus becomes another form of disenfranchisement.

Certainly, No Child Left Behind and mayoral control (as practiced in New York City, for example) have been practiced with such contempt for democracy that many educators would be rightly skeptical of the role of any centralized authority in public education. That said, regulation is necessary; it protects public resources like schools (and ecosystems) from those who seek to do them harm. How then can we create a system of regulation that protects public schools without marginalizing local communities? I don’t know the answer, but the current approach, wherein central governments impose policies upon communities, regardless of those communities’ concerns, has created a poisonous political climate. This is bad for teachers, students, and schools.

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