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Populist legacy threatens to derail LA education reforms

Along with Gov. Bobby Jindal and Board of Elementary and Secondary Education Chairman Chas Roemer, state Superintendent John White is one of the three most despised individuals by established political powers and special interests in education in Louisiana. Yesterday he made a bid to go to the head of that class and then some by laying out a stunningly accurate assessment of the state of reform and where it’s headed in Louisiana and maybe elsewhere.

In remarks made to the invaluable American Enterprise Institute, White noted that the enemies of reform include not just the usual suspects – teacher unions, educrats, and ideological fellow-traveling policy-makers that are invested in the current government-monopoly model because of the power and privilege it brings them – but also those who preach reform yet allow themselves to become coopted by that system and those who become opponents of beneficial reform only because it gets a policy foothold. The latter category of individuals particularly is noteworthy and disproportionate in size in Louisiana because of its political culture.

The former bunch’s source of antipathy is well known and its causes well understood – by expanding choice in education, this exposes the self-serving, hidebound nature of the structure it has built and nurtured. That since the advent of the first charter schools the vast preponderance of scholarly work has demonstrated their performance is superior to that of government monopoly schools, affirmed by the latest and most comprehensive study, and particularly in Louisiana, only this attitude can explain why they view choice as such a threat. As White noted, choice has not only the effect of reducing bureaucratic command and control that frees creativity and innovation, but that this very maze of regulations acts to insulate and protect vested interests.

But much less understood and largely unacknowledged is the other group, and illustrates the Janus-like nature of education in Louisiana’s political culture. White excellently diagnosed that populism – or the idea that a Manichean struggle occurs between a majority in-group being oppressed by a minority but powerful out-group that controls government and other sectors of society such as business – can cause fracturing of reform sentiment.

For example, some who have called for reforms to improve rigor and accountability, such as restricting the self-serving and coercive power held by unions, do so only within the boundaries of the government monopoly model and reject choice because they fear some imagined private sector conspiracy to control or to disrupt their comfortable sinecures. Others who might otherwise support rigor and accountability reject good standards that have any connection at all with the federal government out of (the reasonable) fear that big government will intrude too much into education even as adequate controls exist or can be modified to mitigate this.

White called this group “anti-authoritarian populists,” perhaps because it contains elements of both the political left and right that differ on what is the “authority.” While the left is the natural home of populism, for liberalism posits that, absent powerful government to change these circumstances, societal resources are distributed unfairly through a system dedicated to perpetuating this arbitrary minority advantage, because of Louisiana’s long history of infatuation with populism, a strain has developed on the right as well, where (much more convincingly by the evidence) it is government controlled by special interests utilizing power from enough discrete groups among the masses through power redistribution that is the oppressive force.

To these populist conservatives – who first found their political voice through the discredited instrument of David Duke but now have discovered much more sensible individuals with legitimate issue preferences such as state Treasurer John Kennedy and the “fiscal hawks” of recent origin in the state Legislature – they concern themselves more with symbols than with ideas. This is fueled by another historical aspect of Louisiana politics, that large role that personalistic politics has played traditionally, where voters decide and politics are analyzed not really on the issue preferences and ideas expressed, but by the personal charisma exuded or the relationships built by the politicians. The value of policy options is then not based on their inherent characteristics, but upon who is articulating them, to these people.

These combined to make, for this group, the relevant referent in their evaluation of politics not so much ideas but placement in government. As long as politicians who articulate reducing the power and size of government are outside of wielding significant policy-making power in government, the populists of the right regard them favorably. But as soon as they become significant policy-makers, they become suspect in the eyes of that group simply because they are now part of the beast. This explains why Jindal, despite governing by and large as a principled conservative and unquestionably far more conservatively in policy than any previous governor, which required him to challenge the state’s political culture that shapes the worldview of these people, is seen by many of them suspiciously, if not disliked.

Although White did not put it this way, he laments that that so many “aginners” that have been and should be reform proponents are becoming wary of it as it continues down its logical path, simply because it now is the official government policy. This brings them into league with opponents whose power is threatened by the content of that policy, which White diagnoses as hazardous to reform’s progress.

But White also picked off a consequence of populism from the left as well, when he commented that the greatest discouragement to improved educational delivery was “passivity.” This quality fits entirely within the populist legacy, for that maintains that people have little control over their lives courtesy of the vast conspiracy to keep them down, and therefore they must put their faith in government rather than in individual agency to get what they merit. Only an agenda that encourages educator and family autonomy can rouse them out of this torpor, which is why where Democrats see chaos and some parents complain it’s too “hard,” for the way the state is implementing the Common Core State Standards, White sees the unleashing of creativity.

In his remarks, White, perhaps unknowingly, underscored the role Louisiana’s political culture has played in his experiences of policy leadership of education reform, which presents different challenges from states where there is little populist history. There are those who want reform, until they actually have it and realize its implications to their own power relations and lives. It may mean teachers and parents have to work harder to help children succeed. It may mean school board members have to reduce the role politics plays in their decision-making. It may mean administrators find themselves more accountable on the basis of what children learn rather than to the lobbying of special interests.

As his reform agenda challenges that political culture, it wins him more enemies than friends. But this also transforms it to increase the proportion of future participants in the policy-making process who mold their politics on the new political culture. As such, this provides the way forward to improving education and thereby the quality of life and public service in Louisiana. For this favorable environment to manifest, White, Jindal, Roemer, and all interested in superior educational delivery must stay the course even if some presumed allies cannot understand why.

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