School decentralization was one of the few practical items on the New Left’s agenda of the 1960’s. It was a genuinely radical idea, since the entire history of public education in the US has been the steady progress of consolidation and centralization. Small districts were merged, time after time, into larger consolidated units, and power was inexorably shifted to the professionals who ran the district. What had once been local districts under democratic control turned into a nightmare of bureaucratic arrogance and ineptitude—a sort of gulag with a human face.

New York was supposed to be the proving ground for decentralization, but the arrest in November of the principal of P.S. 53 (an elementary school in the Bronx) has triggered a mainly hostile reexamination of an experiment that has gone on for two decades. The indictment includes the usual charges of nepotism, political cronyism, ethnic politics, graft, and corruption, but the situation is aggravated, so the critics claim, by the power that has been transferred to the smaller district boards.

The whole argument is academic, since, in fact. New York public education was never decentralized. There are only 32 boards overseeing over 800 schools with over 650,000 students. The election was so complicated that many parents were deterred from voting, and the whole system was turned over to the political gangsters who run New York on a day-to-day basis.

To make matters worse, not only were the local boards supposed to control far too many schools, but they were never given the sort of real power over policies and personnel that would have spurred parents into taking an active role. In government there is no power that does not include control over the purse strings. The local councils were designed, more or less, as a sop to ethnic politicians who felt they weren’t lapping enough of the fat off the government gravy. The only thing worse than the current system would be an increased involvement of the state government and that fearless defender of the rights of bureaucrats, Mario Cuomo. Inevitably, Mr. Cuomo has set up a New York state commission to review the problem.

None of New York’s entirely predictable horror stories should deter the deconsolidation experiment underway in Dade County, Florida or the much-advertised Chicago plan due to take effect in July of 1989. Chicago is a strong contender for the honor of worst school system in the nation, which is some sort of indication that the “professionals” may not know what is best for our children. In a very important study released by the Heartland Institute and the United Republican Fund of Illinois, We Can Rescue Our Schools, incontrovertible evidence is presented to prove that smaller districts and parental control are among the most significant factors in determining a good school. The book, which is clearly written in a popular style, ought to be in the hands of every parent and taxpayer in the country. It is available for $1.75 (with bulk discounts available) from Green Hill Publishers, Inc., P.O. Box 738, Ottawa, IL 61350.

The Chicago plan avoids most of the pitfalls of the New York experiment. Each school will be governed by its own council, and six out of eleven council members must be parents of students and elected by parents. The biggest opponents of the plan were educational professionals who look upon parental involvement with fear and loathing. Much of the debate in Chicago turned downright racist, as the establishment attempted to give the impression that the city’s entire black population consisted of teenage mothers and drug dealers. Leaders of (mostly black) parents’ groups quite rightly objected. All they are asking for, they insist, is the chance to lend a hand in cleaning up the terrifying mess that enlightened bureaucrats have made.

But the politicians and sociologists who bray so loudly of democracy have no intention of granting power to the people. If democracy in America ever meant anything, it did not mean our elaborate system of influence brokering presided over by Congressional staffers, civil servants, and social sciences professors. It meant local control of local affairs and a stubborn refusal to let the government intrude too far into private life. Today, in the mouths of global democrats, it seems to mean something like the African system of “one man, one vote, one time.” In 1932, by electing Franklin Roosevelt President for Life, we apparently declared that government by the government, of the government and for the government shall not perish from the earth. God willing, the people of Chicago—saddled with an abysmal educational system and a city government that brings Pulitzers to the reporters who cover it—may reclaim some small part of their American birthright. (TF)