Just what is a republic anyway?

I was reading through last week’s Carnival of Education just now when I came across an interesting post by Brett over at the DeHavilland Blog titled The Upside of Less Education Funding.

Brett starts with an idea that I believe has been a barrier to successful reform in education and to elevating teaching to the status of a profession—a resistance on the part of educators to embrace external forms of accountability. He writes:

What that means is that our schools are intended to be a means to an end which is determined, and paid for, by the public. Simply put, schools are service providers, and we — all of us — are the customers.

But that’s not the current dynamic. Schools and districts generally do not consider themselves in service to the public, and that’s clear from the hue and cry over any sort of independent accountability (which at heart seeks to demonstrate a return on the billions of dollars in federal grants — something the public has a right to see) to the lack of simple courtesy one would show to any customer.

While I’d argue that most schools and districts are working incredibly hard to meet the myriad of demands that communities place upon them—and believe that a part of the “accountability” challenge is clearly defining exactly what it is that we want schools to accomplish—Brett’s assertion is well taken:  Schools and teachers make a million excuses for student performance that have nothing to do with their own work.

In the end, it’s difficult to contend that teachers are the most important factor in the educational equation and then refuse to take responsibility for student learning results. Period. While we’re right to question whether or not standardized tests paint complete pictures of our work, we’re ignorant to argue that they are useless measures without merit.

I’m also in favor of several other ideas running through Brett’s post. He makes the case that schools must become “consumer-facing organizations” that “operate with complete transparency, track their efforts and report on outcomes, and work tirelessly to build donor relations by communicating regularly, clearly, and courteously.”

He also insists that schools should be, “setting objectives based on public input, working hand-in-hand with the public on school operations (instructional and otherwise), tracking and achieving relevant outcomes, and communicating regularly with the public as true partners.” Schools often do little to actively engage the community in their work and—until recently—were rarely data driven organizations. We relied on trust as proof of success—weak footing when communities spend millions on our work.

What I struggle with is the assumption in Brett’s post that schools operate with little oversight and hide behind an interminable bureaucracy that is opposed by the majority of the general public. He writes:

The reason for this disconnect, I believe, is the funding model. If schools and districts were funded directly by the public, I expect they’d be extremely responsive to the public’s interests, involvement, and oversight. However, since the government serves as an intermediary — the public gives money to the government, and the government gives it to the schools — there’s no direct link between the public and the money they provide to the public education system. Schools are not responsive to the public; they’re responsive to the bureaucracy that authorizes their funding.

Now, in the community where I live, the “bureaucracy that authorizes [school] funding” is the Board of County Commissioners—a body elected by the public in general elections.  A recommended budget is submitted to and approved by our local School Board—also a body elected by the public. At the state level, funding is determined by the legislature—who are elected—after long deliberations heavily influenced by the Governor and the Superintendent for Public Instruction—both elected as well.

To claim that “the government” is nothing more than an “intermediary” in a republic such as ours is a bit of an insult to the democratic process. And to believe that elected officials don’t put the concerns of the majority at the forefront of their decision making overlooks the core tenet of politics in our country:  Keep the voters happy at all costs!

That tenet may be the best guarantee that our systems will remain driven by the desires of “the public!”