Thursday, February 08, 2007

Cross-Over Politics and the Ideology of Scale

By Sam Smith

[Part of a continuing series on devolution -- the opposite of governmental centralization, commercial monopoly and cultural domination. Devolution is the art of conducting public affairs at a practical level closest to the human spirit and human communities]

In an age of conglomeration and domination, the cross-political nature of devolution -- or the ideology of scale -- attracts little attention. One can go through a whole political campaign and never consider it. But that doesn't mean the issue is not there.

Consider two current examples: the assault on local control of public schools and the smart growth movement. Both are driven by a curious alliance of liberal, conservative and corporate interests. And both attempt to replace the decentralization of decision-making with centralized, bureaucratic choices.

For example, only Vilsack among the Democratic candidate for president has challenged the No Child law despite it being based on absurdly inadequate justifications, proposed by the least qualified president ever to hold office and pushed by a bunch of child profiteers who will probably be the only clear winners under the legislation.

Similarly, the smart growth movement is being increasingly driven by a dubious alliance between "we know what's good for you" liberal planners and developers who initially resisted the idea until they realized how many new high-rises might result.

Liberals and conservatives who favor America's two centuries of local school control, or wish to resist the transformation of successful communities into high-rise factory farms for globalized serfs, find themselves ignored, ridiculed as NIMBYs or considered behind the times. ...

No Child Left Unregimented

The assault on community-controlled public education is not only a result of Bush's No Child law. Bill Kauffman once noted in Chronicles that it was liberal Harvard president President James Conant who produced a series of postwar reports calling for the "elimination of the small high school" in order to compete with the Soviets and deal with the nuclear era. Says Kauffman, "Conant the barbarian triumphed: the number of school districts plummeted from 83,718 in 1950 to 17,995 in 1970."

Writing in Principal Magazine, Kathleen Cushman pointed out that the small school movement was driven by
the steady rise in school size that has seen the average school population increase five-fold since the end of World War II. A push to consolidate schools has reduced the number of districts by 70 percent in the same period. Ironically, this trend toward big schools coincides with research that repeatedly has found small schools -- commonly defined as no more than 400 students for elementary schools -- to be demonstrably better for students of all ability levels, in all kinds of settings. Academic achievement rises, as indicated by grades, test scores, honor roll membership, subject-area achievement, and assessment of higher-order thinking skills. For both elementary and secondary students, researchers also find small schools equal or superior to large ones on most student behavior measures. Rates of truancy, classroom disruption, vandalism, theft, substance abuse, and gang participation all are reduced in small schools, according to a synthesis of 103 studies.
Education is one of those human activities clearly centered on two people (teacher and student). As the system surrounding this experience becomes larger, more complex and more bureaucratic, the key players become pawns in a new and unrelated bureaucratic game. The role of the principal also dramatically shifts -- from being an educational administrator to being a cross between a corporate executive and a warden. It is such a transformation that helps to bring us things like what happened at Columbine.

Consider, for a moment, that not a single private school has merged with five or ten other academies in the name of efficiency and improved learning. No one has suggested an Andover-Exeter-Groton-Milton-Choate-Kent School Administrative District. ...

Yet not only do we find George Bush, with lots of Democratic support, actively destroying local control over public schools, mayors and governors rushing to join the attack.

For example, inspired by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg who has yet to produce convincing results for his corporatization of public education, DC's 36-year old new mayor Adrian Fenty is following suit. He wants to abolish the elected school and put the system under his control despite his impressive inexperience in education. But Fenty, like many in politics and business, is absolutely convinced that certainty is an adequate substitute for competence.

How little he really understands was well described by Colbert King in the Washington Post:
If governance and lack of accountability are the main problems, why do students attending Lafayette and Murch elementary schools, which are west of Rock Creek Park, exceed proficiency targets in reading and math by wide margins while students at Ketchum and Stanton elementary schools, east of the Anacostia River, fall far short of the mark? The four schools are in the same governance structure. Their principals report to the same superintendent and are guided by the same school board policies. True, Lafayette and Murch, located in middle-income neighborhoods, have more white students. But before going off on a racial tangent, consider this: Black students attending Lafayette and Murch, in contrast to their counterparts in Southeast, also excel in reading and math.
King asked Fenty why his takeover would help matters: "His bottom line: he has the energy, determination, and sense of urgency that he feels are missing among school leaders to make those things happen." In other words, he thinks what the schools really need most is himself.

Perhaps even more bizarre is what is happening in Maine. The plan itself is familiar: the pursuit of the false god of educational efficiency through the concentration of school districts as ordered by the governor. 290 school districts would be merged into 26 regional administrative units.

What makes it stranger is that Maine is one of a handful of New England states where one can still find the remnants of American democracy functioning at human scale thanks to such institutions as town meetings and lots of small villages that do what they want without excessive interference from above. This tradition has produced in recent years more independent governors (although not the present one) than just about any state and a culture of honest independence in politics and governance that would best be emulated rather than reorganized.

And who suggested the course that the governor is following? None other than representatives of that citadel of Washington anti-democratic elitism, that hospice of prematurely aging MBAs and political science majors: the Brookings Institution. This is like Arianna Huffington coaching the Chicago Bears.

To add to the oddity, it is all being done in the name of "smart growth." ...

This is not a left-right struggle but one that may be far more important for our future: a struggle between communities and bureaucracies and between humans and systems. At present, the communities and humans are not winning.

Smart Growth

The tie-in with smart growth is quite revealing. The smart growth movement started as a largely well intentioned movement led by planners and environmentalists. Many of their proposals made sense but it had some serious problems, beginning with the insulting manner it treated suburban communities in which many Americans lived, had improved their lives and educated their children. As is traditionally the case with planners, these citizens were expected to adapt to a purportedly ideal physical model -- even at the cost of having to move or being evicted -- instead of having the emphasis placed on improving -- for them as well as the environment -- the communities in which they currently lived.

This is not a new problem with planners. In 1910, G.K. Chesterton described two characters, Hudge and Gudge, whose thinking evolved in such a disparate manner that the one came to favor the building of large public tenements for the poor while the other believed that these public projects were so awful that the slums from whence they came were in fact preferable. Wrote Chesterton:
Such is the lamentable history of Hudge and Gudge; which I merely introduced as a type of an endless and exasperating misunderstanding which is always occurring in modern England. To get men out of a rookery, men are put into a tenement; and at the beginning the healthy human soul loathes them both. A man's first desire is to get away as far as possible from the rookery, even should his mad course lead him to a model dwelling. His second desire is, naturally, to get away from the model dwelling, even if it should lead a man back to the rookery.

Neither Hudge nor Gudge had ever thought for an instant what sort of house a man might probably like for himself. In short, they did not begin with the ideal; and, therefore, were not practical politicians.
Much of American politics and planning follows the Hudge-Gudge model, producing failure for both conservatives and liberals -- the former offering us an army of the homeless and the latter presenting us finally with drug-infested housing projects.

In the case of smart growth, the Hudge-Gudge conflict could have been avoided by considering not just a community's ecological liabilities but its assets, and then figuring out how to lessen the former without harming the latter. ...

It is helpful also to bear in mind that next to economists, no profession has been so consistently wrong and harmful to the human spirit as urban planning. ...

The human, the community, the small were repeatedly considered archaic, insignificant and regressive.

From the progressive movement of the early 20th century on, well-meaning but excessively self-assured members of the elite have controlled the debate, the money and the plans, with barely restrained contempt for the reservations, concerns and resistance of the less powerful. And so it is with smart growth.

Listen to Grow Smart Maine:
Many of Maine's smaller cities and towns are experiencing unplanned growth but lack the resources and experience to manage that change in ways that protect the character of their community. ... The Model Town Community Project will work with a selected town during 2006 and 2007 to provide tools and advice that will help the town shape its future. The project will mobilize local, state and regional resources, enable the town to explore new growth strategies and fully engage local residents by combining the best elements of New England town meetings with ground-breaking new technologies.
In other words, we'll come in and show you how to run a town meeting our way, just like we learned at business school.

But if smart growth is meant to be about environmentally sound planning, how come we have to consolidate our school districts and our town offices?

Because once you put your faith in the sort of expertise that a planning-managerial elite offers, once you turn to MBAs like others turn to Jesus, then you don't really need democracy, town meetings or small schools. What you need is efficiency and managerial skill and you have been promised that, so why worry?

Further, even over smart growth's short life, a disturbing alliance has developed between some liberals and developers thanks to the latter discovering that the environmentalists didn't really want to stop them from building, they just want them to build somewhere else and most likely in a place where they could get more per square foot ...

In some neighborhoods, citizens are even being called NIMBYs because they don't want high-rises shoved into their pleasant communities and the name-callers include not just the developers but enabling liberals who think they're saving the planet. Never mind that in their own city, in Greenwich Village or in Europe there are plenty of examples of density without high-rise factory farms. ...

In both the school consolidation and the smart growth debates the issue of human scale -- and not some liberal-conservative conflict -- is at the core. But we have been taught -- by intellectuals, by the media, by politicians -- to revere a promise of efficiency and technological advance over the empirical advantages of living the way humans have traditionally lived, including valuing the small places that host, nurture and define their lives. We have been trained not to even notice when our very humanity is being destroyed in the name of mere physical change.

We should notice, though, because in the end, if we lose the fight for staying human, whether we were liberal or conservative won't have mattered a bit.