BOOK REVIEW—A Democratic Constitution for Public Education

A Democratic Constitution for Public Education by Paul T. Hill and Ashley E. Jochim. Chicago ; London: The University of Chicago Press, 2015. 143pp., $22.50. Katherine L. Arrington The University of Texas, Austin It is no secret that the American education […]

A Democratic Constitution for Public Education by Paul T. Hill and Ashley E. Jochim. Chicago ; London: The University of Chicago Press, 2015. 143pp., $22.50.

Katherine L. Arrington
The University of Texas, Austin

It is no secret that the American education system currently serves some students better than others. There are persistent patterns of low academic achievement for low-socioeconomic students of color. In A Democratic Constitution for Public Education, Paul Hill and Ashley Jochim (2015) argue that a new kind of governance can lead to more equitable outcomes in public education. Proposing that overregulation of operations in the education system prevents schools from providing the best service to students, the authors posit that school boards and state and federal governments, though perhaps well intentioned, have incrementally removed the power of schools. They claim unnecessary legislation and policies limit schools’ ability to innovate, both in operations and in classrooms, narrowing the options and opportunities for school improvement. Hill and Jochim also argue that the current governance structures limit the democratic power of communities to engage in local control of their schools. These arguments have intellectual roots in literature regarding the restructuring of the institution of school from being under social control to employing competitive market-based strategies leading to improved outcomes for all students (e.g., Chubb & Moe 1990). Following these ideas, Hill and Jochim support the market-based approach taken in cities like New York, New Orleans, Denver, and Hartford. Leaders in these cities are trying to transform the system “from a rule-bound bureaucracy into an innovative, problem solving public enterprise” (ix) leveraging greater control for educators in schools around operations, teaching and learning, and increased parental choice of schools. This review provides an overview of the ideas presented by Hill and Jochim in the book, and then investigates some shortcomings of their arguments.

Overview of the Arguments

In the first three chapters of the book, Hill and Jochim make a case for the structure of a governance system they believe will be effective for improving public schools. Currently, state and local education agencies control decisions about teacher certification requirements, staffing ratios, required seat time for students, and school curricula. Hill and Jochim’s system would eliminate this level of governmental oversight. They propose to build a governance system that would be more “efficient, equitable, transparent, accountable, and democratic” (13). This system includes a limited level of oversight and rules in order to maintain educational standards, but allows schools complete freedom regarding how they operate in order to provide fully for students. Families would be free to choose the schools they attend, finding the best programs to suit their needs and aspirations. Nearly all funding for schools is on a per-pupil basis, which encourages schools to work hard to keep their students and their revenues.

In the next three chapters, the authors describe a distinct role for various entities that would make up their proposed school governance system, as well as the limitations on the actions each entity has rights to take. For example, Hill and Jochim define the state and federal government’s role as the funders on a per-pupil basis and supplier information about promising practices and programs, but would not be allowed to mandate any programs or create regulations for operations of schools. The government would set up the parameters for the core local unit of organization, called a Civic Education Council (CEC). The CEC would set performance measures for schools, and approve school openings and closings based on school performance against those measures. The CEC would hire a Chief Executive Officer (CEO), and contract with independent organizations such as charter management organizations (CMO) to run the day-to-day operations schools, including management of human, curricular, and financial resources. Hill and Jochim claim that the these structures increase local control, decrease the interest of those who want to advance a particular agenda, and will result in greater equity across the system.

In the final two chapters of the book, Hill and Jochim recognize the challenges of their proposal, and suggest preemptive solutions to anticipated stumbling blocks. They predict the need to resist backsliding on many of the changes they consider important, including limiting governmental oversight as to not allow reduction in local control, and to manage political pressures to ensure fair access and treatment for all students.

A Neoliberal Version of Common Sense

While I share the desire to improve schools and create greater equity, the suggestions made by Hill and Jochim rest on assumptions that are fundamentally flawed in that they lack contextual understanding of schools and how they serve students and families. Hill and Jochim’s notion of a governance system follows a recent trend toward neoliberal, market-based strategies as a solution to the inequities in the education system. On the premise that competitive markets are more effective and efficient, neoliberals champion privatization of social systems, withdrawal of government regulation, introducing competition to the market, and moving from public good and community mindsets to focus on individual benefits and private goods. At the heart of Hill and Jochim’s proposal is each school’s ability to control resources to make their own decisions about operations, and use of competition and choice in the educational marketplace. The authors posit that student choice in an open market translates into greater equity in the system. They put the students and families in the role of consumer, making rational choices about what the best option is for their circumstance.

For all of the authors’ talk of creating efficiency, effectiveness, and equity in schools through market-based reforms, they ignore the issues that have been found with school choice policies. Holme (2002) found that the suggestion of using school choice as a way to improve public education is flawed, and that school choice does not allow all students and families access to good schools. Margonis and Parker (1995) argue that further segregation is likely through school choice and that proposals leveraging school choice without proper attention to race and economic inequity “threaten to legitimate the most drastic educational inequalities in our society” (375). Hill and Jochim indicate that students must be protected from discrimination and that the system must work toward equitable outcomes for all students, but provide the faulty argument that school choice leads to greater equity.

Hill and Jochim also fail to address the ways individuals in a system come together to create culture in a school and schools’ impact on the communities and places they serve. They propose CECs as the “local” unit of organization to serve a set of students geographically bounded into a region. Different regions across the country provide greatly disparate resources and opportunities, and as Dreier et al. (2014) say, “The inequalities across places reinforce inequalities among people” (4). Disparities between locations can have huge impact on a school and its resources. While the authors do suggest that funding follow students, and they address how to deal with varying facilities costs and attracting uniquely talented educators for particular roles, they do not address the dearth of qualified educators and other resources needed to run a school in some places. They also don’t look for the assets and supports that are diminished through school choice practices that are represented in established, community-based schools, such as strong social and communication networks, and additional human resources provided by local stakeholders (National Education Association et al. 2016). As their proposal relegates schools to discrete regional controls but expects the population to move freely between them, schools would be stuck with the same limitations and inequities they experience due to their locations while losing the supports they would have from a consistent community presence.

In great irony, Hill and Jochim also argue that if a school is not meeting the criteria set by the CEC, who are purposefully disconnected from the day-to-day operations of each school, the CEC should not hesitate to close or replace the school. The authors contribute arguments for pushing forward with school closures even if the community is fighting to keep these schools open. It’s a disappointment that the authors hardly recognize the major disruption and destabilization that occurs in association with school closures (Lipman 2015). They also fail to recognize that closing schools against the community’s wishes is directly contradictory to their proposal of greater democratic participation and local control in schools.

Conclusion

A Democratic Constitution for Public Education offers an interesting assessment of the current state of affairs in the public education system. As the authors argue, the incrementally developed “crazy quilt” (8) of policy and regulations working in schools and districts can constrain the system’s ability to be flexible and responsive in the way the free market might allow. However, this book places the focus on “efficient and effective solutions” for individual schools and increasing the private good offered to individual students in neoliberal fashion. They are practically indifferent to how the system and schools grow from and bolster the culture and communities they are serving. The authors offer prospects of improvement solely through a wholesale venture into a market-based system, and disregard the need for community interactions with schools. Rather than increasing equity in the system, their proposal will intensify the social reproduction of inequality, resulting in a crazier quilt with gaping holes.

Katherine L. Arrington is a doctoral student at The University of Texas at Austin. Her research examines inequities in access to and success in high-quality K–12 education and how K–12 education leads to postsecondary success. She also manages the K–12 Services team at the Charles A. Dana Center, an organized research unit in the College of Natural Sciences at the University. Any opinions expressed in this article are her own and not necessarily that of the Dana Center.

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