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John Jensen: Retribution a Growing Problem from Education Bureaucracy

Santa Barbara parents are not alone, but New Zealand may offer lesson for actual reform

Almost a year ago, I began exchanging e-mails and phone calls with people in Santa Barbara about their schools. Apparently, much has been documented by independent state-level investigation (Fiscal Crisis & Management Assessment Team report, summer 2009), and conveyed already to the Santa Barbara school board and the media — and there it sits.

John Jensen
John Jensen

A correspondent writes, “Since the FCMAT report came out one year ago there has been little or no correction made to their out-of-compliance violations, which are numerous. In November 2009 there were four suicides by students and nine attempted suicides that required hospitalization. It is a tragic situation, with Superintendent (Brian) Sarvis working hard at covering up his staff’s violations of the special education laws. Retaliation by administrators against school staff and against parents who advocate for students with special needs is rampant. It was reported in the FCMAT but nothing has changed, while children suffer. The FCMAT investigator told the school board that their students who have learning disabilities are passed through the district grade to grade, not learning how to read and write, and these students come out of the district with personality disorders. This is all ignored by the school trustees and the City Council, who have turned a blind eye.”

Another citizen notes that people encounter blocking, refusal to supply public documents, misdirection and other manipulations when attempting to uncover the facts. The central issue, this person tells me, “is about retaliation, which involves the general lawlessness and the biggest long-term problem. There’s a lack of any way for parents or citizens to hold the local district accountable. Even the state-created and taxpayer-funded entity that’s supposed to correct this (FCMAT) is apparently corrupt. Retaliation against people who insist on answers is being enabled by the state agency designed to correct that very thing.” (An alert reader will note that I include neither citizen’s name due to their certainty that they would experience retribution for their opinions).

The problem is larger than Santa Barbara, unfortunately. The United States has turned education into a bureaucratic colossus that’s virtually impenetrable from the outside. If a district wishes to change internally, it does so at its own glacial pace. If it doesn’t wish to change, it doesn’t, regardless of voices directed at it. School boards appear ineffectual because they’re hindered from initiating substantive change. Those perceived as gadflies then arrive at meetings or administrators’ offices to protest that they don’t meet the needs of special-education students, school is inhospitable to those who begin with a learning deficit, the “low-hanging fruit” are encouraged to drop out so they don’t lower the district’s test scores, a school-to-prison pipeline is consciously favored, excessive funds are devoted to high salaries and perks for administrators, teachers are intimidated from speaking out, and parents are given no effective voice in policy decisions. If past is prologue, administrators will succeed in evading public scrutiny of their actions. They’ve had more practice at closing doors than the public has had at opening them.

Aside from getting to the bottom of specific abuses, a solution being discussed is a common-sense step, a structure for education that would be “student-oriented, teacher-directed and parent-involved.” While I’m unfamiliar with its details, the logic of financial accountability suggests that to be effective, policy control depends on financial control. To have any hope of success, reform must place the money into the hands of teachers and parents, school by school.

While this may at first sound radical, the approach has succeeded wildly in a conservative, stable nation. In the mid-1980s, New Zealand (with a population near the median of our states) awoke to find its government not working, and it aggressively initiated substantial changes. In education, 30 percent of its students were failing and 70 percent of education resources were for administration. Students were testing 15 percent below comparable industrialized nations.

On one day New Zealand turned over financial and policy control of 4,500 schools to trustees elected for each school by the parents of the children attending it, and a few years later, the country’s students were testing 14 percent to 15 percent above comparable industrialized nations (cf. below). An enormous amount of money previously spent on bureaucracy went to instruction. Money connected directly to needs became monitored steadily by those to whom it mattered most: the parents of students in the school.

I especially appreciate the action of the New Zealand government, that it “walked the talk” about democracy and “power to the people.” It demonstrated that given genuine management of necessary resources, people would make good choices for their own well-being. In contrast, it’s easy to imagine the debates that would occur in this country. We could expect rationalizations with countless permutations for evading the central truth: “It would eliminate my own position and power!” Since it would indeed, we should provide unemployment benefits for dismissed administrators and return them to the classroom where they could resume direct service to students.

It’s no minor thing that a principle about the structure of civilization is at stake. The idea of autocracy is that a single person at the top rules, while aristocracy says that the best people know best. In an oligarchy, a faction of a few control government for their own ends, and in a plutocracy, people with money have the power. Contrasting with these, democracy says that people as a whole know best, that everyone’s contribution can make a difference.

So which of these styles of governance is represented in an impenetrable bureaucracy? It appears to be a combination of plutocracy (sustaining the financial advantage of the few) and oligarchy (a cohort trades roles while sustaining their collective power). This violates the principle of equality before the law, since those who have money and position are more equal than others, in George Orwell’s felicitous phrase. Those without either are left to scratch at the edges.

What can be done? It’s important to remember that no matter how entrenched a power base appears to be, it ultimately survives through acceptance by mainstream opinion, which then manifests in laws and allocation of resources. As it becomes clear that acceptance erodes, power weakens proportionately. As more and more people recognize what’s wrong, acceptance evaporates, replaced by indignation.

An obvious path to change, then, is to make misdeeds clear even if they are legally defensible. Violations of both the letter of the law and common standards of fairness deserve public attention. One of the latter is the very notion of retribution.

If this direction makes sense to you, would you join me in the preliminary step of information-gathering? If you fear retribution if you were to speak your mind, use my e-mail below to tell me. Include your general location. For my own assurance, I need to know your name but I’ll keep it confidential. If you speak for a group, tell me how many agree: “Three of us in Santa Barbara” or whatever. Those controlling education will continue in their direction unless public sentiment informs them otherwise.

A threat of retribution is a canary in the mine telling us unmistakably that the atmosphere is toxic.

— John Jensen Ph.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist and author of Finding Your Inner Lenin: Taking Responsibility for Global Change (Xlibris, 2007). He welcomes comments sent to him at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address), and will e-mail an e-book version of his book to anyone without charge upon request. More recent information is available on New Zealand, but for the points cited, see “Rolling Back Government: Lessons From New Zealand,” Maurice McTigue, Imprimis, February 2004.

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