A while back my local board of education proposed a major, districtwide school construction initiative. The millions of dollars in proposed costs naturally inspired some taxpayer backlash and lots of lobbying for and against. eventually it went to voters in a referendum.
Despite some dissent, voters passed the initiative, and according to a local newspaper report, the board's spokesperson said that anyone who had voted no was either anti-education or uninformed. I was bothered by this narrow and intolerant response. Of course you could vote no and still be pro-education and for children, I thought.
A pro-education voter could have voted either way, because the initiative was a traditional "bond and build" proposal that included a controversial new school site. I don't recall any discussion of more progressive building options, such as "mixedused facilities" designed to serve multiple community organizations. Or what about the comparative economics of the new buildings actually being built and owned by outside firms and then leased back to the municipality, eliminating the need for bond funding?
Was the board member's assertion an expression of elitism, or was there really only one education-friendly building plan to consider? One construction industry executive recently told me that there is virtually no innovation in K12 school construction, and yet it's generally more costly per square foot than other commercial construction. If accurate, does that imply bureaucratic inefficiency, or that K12 just has unique (and more costly) construction needs?
No Room for Debate?
I understand that merely posing such questions may elicit some less than friendly mail.
That's been my experience whenever I've written about K12 reform that promotes real changes in the operational or organizational structure of K12 schooling. Strangely, those who disagree, at least those who contact me, don't seem to want to engage in dialogue or debate, or even justify the status quo. They just write angry, dismissive rants.
For example, while most of the responses I got to my column on Roosevelt vs. Reagan ("Understanding the Times," July 2007) were positive, one person who disagreed wrote, "So education is a commie plot. How the hell did you get to be publisher of DA?" What? I simply highlighted the starkly contrasting philosophies of Roosevelt and Reagan regarding the appropriate role of government as a provider of education and suggested that "compulsory government-run public education" was not the only, or necessarily the best, means to achieve "universal access to education."
Another reader, responding to my "Understanding the Times" column in the August 2007 issue, apparently opposed my suggestion that eliminating the federal Department of Education might be a good first step toward ensuring more local governance and control of education. He called me "gullible" and part of the "right-wing ilk" creating "faith-based facts to fit [my] beliefs."
I wrote to him welcoming his disagreement and inviting him to have a "congenial and constructive dialogue." He declined, saying my "fact dodging, smearing editorials" left "little ground for honest discussion." He never told me what he believed or what his positions were. I could only assume that he's satisfied with the state of K12 education and doesn't want to change anything.
The Spirit of Democracy
USA Today published its first issue 25 years ago to the day I'm writing this. Citing the clashing philosophies of House Speaker Tip O'Neill and President Reagan, it referred to them as "two political leaders using their positions of power to establish national priorities. Th e challenge for USA Today is to provide a daily forum where the free exchange of opinions will contribute to that understanding, where points of view can contest and clash and complement. Our goal: to off er an opinion page where people with diverse points of view can help establish, amid the chaos of personal agendas, a national agenda for America. For those who listen only to what they already believe speak only to themselves."
Our goal at District Administration is no different. We aim to offer a diversity of viewpoints in our opinion columns and on our blog site, The Pulse (www.districtadministration.com/pulse) that, along with your feedback, will inspire continuous-if not radical-improvement in American education. We look forward to hearing from you.
Daniel E. Kinnaman is publisher of District Administration