When the problems of America come out in the education systems

Two recent articles reminded me of what I wrote in the headline: for many Americans, the problems the country faces are part of the day-to-day realities of the local schools.

First, a report on a recent controversy in the schools in Shaker Heights, Ohio:

Yet in Shaker Heights, healthy race relations are a cornerstone of the community’s identity, the reason many choose to live here, a central organizing principle for the schools…

But the story of Shaker Heights shows how moving kids of different races into the same building isn’t the same as producing equal outcomes. A persistent and yawning achievement gap has led the district to grapple with hard questions of implicit bias, family responsibility and the wisdom of tracking students by ability level. Last school year, 68 percent of white 11th-graders were enrolled in at least one AP or IB course, but just 12 percent of black students were…

The racial tension coursing through the packed auditorium last November traced back to a tense exchange between Olivia and a veteran AP English teacher, Jody Podl, six weeks earlier. Olivia had been dozing in class, playing with her phone. Now, her first big assignment of the year was late. The teacher had admonished and embarrassed Olivia. Olivia’s mom fired off a three-page complaint, suggesting racism and charging bullying. The district put the teacher on leave to investigate.

Second, on enrolling students in New York City’s public schools:

The system that dominates our waking hours, commands our unthinking devotion, and drives us, like orthodox followers of an exacting faith, to extraordinary, even absurd feats of exertion is not democracy, which often seems remote and fragile. It’s meritocracy—the system that claims to reward talent and effort with a top-notch education and a well-paid profession, its code of rigorous practice and generous blessings passed down from generation to generation. The pressure of meritocracy made us apply to private schools when our son was 2—not because we wanted him to attend private preschool, but because, in New York City, where we live, getting him into a good public kindergarten later on would be even harder, and if we failed, by that point most of the private-school slots would be filled. As friends who’d started months earlier warned us, we were already behind the curve by the time he drew his picture of the moon. We were maximizing options—hedging, like the finance guy, like many families we knew—already tracing the long line that would lead to the horizon of our son’s future…

New York’s distortions let you see the workings of meritocracy in vivid extremes. But the system itself—structured on the belief that, unlike in a collectivized society, individual achievement should be the basis for rewards, and that, unlike in an inherited aristocracy, those rewards must be earned again by each new generation—is all-American. True meritocracy came closest to realization with the rise of standardized tests in the 1950s, the civil-rights movement, and the opening of Ivy League universities to the best and brightest, including women and minorities. A great broadening of opportunity followed. But in recent decades, the system has hardened into a new class structure in which professionals pass on their money, connections, ambitions, and work ethic to their children, while less educated families fall further behind, with little chance of seeing their children move up.

Many factors seem to come together in these circumstances:

1. The American belief that schools are the great equalizer or should be if they are not.

2. The expectation that parents should help ensure their kids do better than them.

3. The idea that the right education is needed to be successful in life (both for the kids and the parents).

4. A difference in opinion over whether American systems should provide equal opportunities or equal outcomes.

5. The public nature of schools where community tax dollars and identity come together in a local institution.

6. An American preference for local control thus that public schools can be responsive to local residents and leaders.

7. With declining trust in other major institutions, schools might be one of the few remaining institutions that provide hope.

8. Varying opinions on how schools should (or should not) address issues of race, class, and gender present in communities.

Put these all together and the stakes are high for local schools and conflict can arise. On one hand, this passion about a local institution may help guarantee its success. Even as Washington invokes depression, Americans can dive into and try to correct issues in their schools. On the other hand, all of these expectations plus larger social forces at work beyond the control of local districts or residents means flashpoints can be difficult to resolve. A number of the problems schools face are not just school issues; they are tough issues for the whole country to converse about and address. Every school district has to work to address community and national issues in ways that are desirable to local constituents while also considering wider standards and approaches.

Resistance to 5G: technological progress versus local zoning and control

Americans like local control and they like technological progress. So what will happen when municipalities refuse to install or significantly slow down the installation of 5G units the federal government has approved?

If someone is tracking all of these cases, it would be interesting to know how many communities are resisting this because of (1) alleged health threats or (2) resistance to being told that they must install these or (3) that some of these boxes are located near homes. Of course, it could be a combination of the three in some places but even then, I wonder what is the more convincing argument at (1) the local level and (2) at higher levels.

In the long run, I assume federal requirements would supersede local land use restrictions. But, what if there are scores of communities that resist? Or, what if the resisters are more powerful communities and residents? Infrastructure is a pretty important feature of modern society and allowing some communities to opt out may not be optimal. There is always some cynicism that wealthier communities can resist land use changes better because their resources allow them to challenge change. Would 5G installations then go in places that cannot as easily resist? Does this foreshadow a technological landscape where resources and ideology lead to more uneven distribution of basic technological infrastructure?

One possible compromise in many communities: ceding that the federal government has approved this but then refusing to install them in residential areas. I do not know how this would affect 5G coverage but I imagine moving the units out of sight of homes and residential units could do a lot of good.

Limiting suburban redtape to installing solar panels

A program is helping a number of Chicago area communities make it easier for residents to add solar panels:

If you want to install solar panels for your house or business, you’re likely to find a faster and more user-friendly permitting process if your community has earned a SolSmart designation.

Illinois has 18 SolSmart communities, including Aurora, Hanover Park, South Barrington, and Cook and Kane counties. Another 22 — including Elgin, Lake in the Hills, Naperville and DuPage County — started the designation procedure last month.

The designation means towns and counties have streamlined processes and reviewed ordinances to clearly spell out requirements, and staff members have been trained to properly examine installation plans and inspect the finished work…

There are 223 SolSmart communities across the country. The program launched in April 2016 with funding from the U.S. Department of Energy to the International City/County Management Association and The Solar Foundation, which provides technical assistance.

Residents of the American suburbs like their local government and local control yet this is an example where local bodies can get in the way: does every suburb have to go through separate processes to address solar panels? It sounds like the SolMart program helps provide resources and guidance so that suburbs do not have to do all the work on their own.

Thinking more broadly, what other suburban initiatives could be addressed at a similar level? I’m guessing a national campaign to have more permeable driveways might not work as well or one that installs containers to catch rainwater from gutters. I wonder if the solar panels issue works in part because the demand for them is still relatively small in the Chicago suburbs. Or, perhaps it is because it deals with roofs – a part of buildings that is not as visible – so concern is minimized.

Why Americans love suburbs #6: local government, local control

One of the unique features of the government of the United States is a federal system that distributes power between the federal government and more local bodies. Even if the federal government has grown dramatically in the last century, the suburbs offer residents a relatively small and responsive local government. Americans claim to prefer small town life and in such communities the distance between average resident and local leaders is reduced.

If the suburbs at their heart are about single-family homes and family life, a small local government can help protect the quality of life in the community. Local governments can exclude certain kinds of development. This then affects what kinds of residents can live in suburbs. See exclusionary zoning cases in DuPage County and Westchester County, two notoriously wealthy suburban counties, or more recent cases of religious groups facing opposition such as Muslims and Orthodox Jews in New Jersey. Homeowners can directly see and respond to how their tax dollars are spent. They may not like high property taxes (whether in the 1970s in southern California or more recently in northern Virginia) or decisions about TIF funds or but at least that money is spent in the community rather than shipped off to other centers of power. They may fight with each other about whether to raise local taxes for schools or fund regional transit initiatives or support affordable housing but at least they may know those they are arguing with and everyone does want their community to be attractive. Suburbanites are resistant to outsiders telling them what they should be doing, whether they are concerned about the federal government pushing denser housing (and perhaps even the UN) or state or court mandates about affordable housing (such as requirements passed in 2004 in Illinois or requirements in New Jersey due to the Mt. Laurel decisions).

While suburbanites may believe they have more access to suburban governments, these elected and appointed officials can have a significant impact on suburban development. The growth machine theory suggests local officials and business people push and pursue development because there is money to be made. Suburban growth is good because it can generate profits and it adds prestige. The growth has to end at some point (see cases like Naperville and Aurora) but officials, with some input from residents, can push suburbs in certain directions. Not all suburbs will make the same decisions about what to do with open land or with their downtowns but local leaders get to make these decisions that then influence residents decades later.

Local control then means that suburban communities can have distinct characters. While critics may suggest suburbia is an endless sprawling mass with very porous boundaries, local governments and development decisions alongside public involvement and civic projects can lead to long-standing and fiercely defended local understandings. The most typical image of an American suburb – bedroom community with postwar subdivisions filled with similar-looking homes – may not actually fit many suburbs in terms of appearance or perceived experience.

How exactly local decision-makers and suburban officials come into office can differ across locales. Voter turnout is low in many local elections so it may not take much effort to become a local official. On the other hand, local politics can sometimes turn very contentious because of particular significant issues or long-standing political factions. Americans tend to be more optimistic about their local conditions than about the country as a whole so suburban officials who do a decent job can retain their positions for a long time. Furthermore, suburbanites may be less interested in efficiencies across local governments, such as combining small police departments, compared to having their own local bodies.

Another aspect of this local control involves less democracy: the rise of homeowner’s associations. A good number of suburbanites are willing to turn over some decisions about their property and neighborhood to a board or management company that will ensure certain standards are upheld. Again, the distance between the average HOA homeowner and board is small; boards often need more people to volunteer to serve and neighborhood meetings allow homeowners to express concerns.

Of course, there are problems among suburban local government. They may not have the resources or expertise to deal with complicated issues (such as providing social services to address suburban poverty). There can be too many smaller units that have their own bureaucracies and abilities to tax residents (see Illinois as an example with numerous taxing bodies and debates about eliminating townships). Local officials can be corrupt (Cicero), incompetent (Harvey), or follow their own paths while remaining impervious to other opinions (Rosemont). Yet, many Americans might argue that even these problematic aspects of suburban governments are relatively easy to deal with compared to the behemoth in Washington.

Chicago aldermen: from selecting public housing sites to blocking affordable housing

Even as Chicago’s mayor suggests more interest in affordable housing, a new report from the Chicago Fair Housing Alliance shows how Chicago aldermen used “aldermanic prerogative” to slow down, water down, or reject certain kinds of housing projects:

Much of the City Council’s power over development is unwritten and informal.

Typically, if a development in a ward needs a zoning change or permit, and the development is not supported by the alderman of that ward, the proposal is voted down if it ever reaches the full City Council. In some cases, a developer can make a proposal, and the presiding alderman or zoning advisory council will dictate changes — such as how many of the apartments will be condominiums and how many should be set aside for lower-income residents. Those negotiations have to be navigated before the proposal can reach the City Council. The development proposal can also linger in the zoning committee, which is another way it eventually dies from inaction…

The study’s authors examined how zoning laws were used to keep low-income public housing residents confined to certain communities and how private market rate housing has been engineered to confine lower-income residents to specific neighborhoods. They also reviewed case by case what happened with most recent efforts to create affordable housing across Chicago…

The report suggests that in order to ensure affordable housing, the city has to take steps to change the way business is conducted and develop a citywide protocol. That plan would have to force each ward to bear some of the weight of producing affordable housing.

Given Chicago’s long history of residential segregation, I would suggest this is primarily about race: wealthier and whiter neighborhoods do not want black and non-white residents to be able to move in. While the issue may seem to be housing with cheaper values or the preference that neighborhood residents have for local control, at the root, this is about controlling who can live in certain places. If given the opportunity, local officials will claim they are simply representing the interests of their constituents.

And this aldermanic power regarding housing has a long history. Here is part of the tale regarding the early days of public housing in the city retold in Alex Kotlowitz’s There Are No Children Here (p. 21-22):

The city’s aldermen first bullied the state legislature into giving them the power of selecting public housing site, a prerogative that had previously belonged to the local housing authority.

Then a group of leading aldermen, who were not above petty vindictiveness, chartered a bus to tour the city in search of potential sites. On the bus ride, they told reporters that they were out to seek vengeance against the Chicago Housing Authority and the seven aldermen who supported public housing, and they chose sites in neighborhoods represented by these aldermen. Like prankish teenagers, they selected the most outrageous of possibilities, including the tennis courts at the University of Chicago and a parcel of land that sat smack in the middle of a major local highway. The message was clear: the CHA and its liberal backers could build public housing but not in their back yards.

The complexes were not, in the end, built at these sites. Instead, they were constructed on the edges of the city’s black ghettoes.

In many instances, the primary way black and other non-white residents have been able to move into new city neighborhoods or suburbs is when whites are willing to leave.

 

Why suburbanites want to have their own police departments and local governments

Writing about a recent incident of police violence in a Pittsburgh suburb, one writer looking at all of the small police forces in suburbia asks:

It’s not often clear what the rationale is for these small municipalities to have their own city administrations and law enforcement agencies.

And he later says:

If having multiple police departments makes for inefficient and unprofessional work across St. Louis County, imagine what it means for Allegheny County, which has almost twice as many police departments. Micro-department intrusions add up to macro-resentment of police in general.

The argument for efficiency in consolidating local government and police forces may make sense in this particular context. Perhaps a larger-scale police force could better avoid such incidents through training and more familiarity with a broader area.

But, there are two related and powerful reasons that the American urban landscape is broken into so many local governments: Americans like the idea of local control and they like the idea of living in a small town. In a smaller community and with their own officials, Americans think they can exert more influence on local processes and the size of each local agency does not become too large. It is theoretically much easier to meet an official or register a complaint or run for local office if there is a major precipitating issue. This can especially be the case with wealthier suburbs that want to maintain their exclusivity by remaining small.

The only factor that may push suburbs and smaller communities to give up this dream of local control and small town life is difficult financial positions or seeking certain efficiencies. See an example of Maine communities that have dissolved due to a lack of local revenue. Illinois has tried banning the formation of new local taxing bodies while DuPage County has moved to reduce the number of local governments. But, if the resources are there, Americans might prefer these small units of government. (Another argument that could be leveled at all these small governments is that they may be corrupt or inept. Small suburbs can become little fiefdoms with weird rules, as illustrated by Ferguson and other communities in St. Louis County. But, even in those cases it is less clear that the residents of these small suburbs do not like their local governments where it may seem obvious to outsiders that there are problems.)

Also, it is important to note for this story that Pennsylvania is a leader among states regarding the number of local governments. Not every state does it the same way. Similarly, many metropolitan regions in the South and West are much larger in terms of square miles compared to Rust Belt cities that had difficulties annexing any suburbs into city limits after 1900.

Ongoing Illinois debates about abolishing townships

Illinois is known as the state with the most taxing bodies and one way to reduce that figure would be to eliminate townships:

It’s prompted dueling Republican proposals for new state laws, one to make it easier to get rid of townships, the other to require a study to show financial savings before any township unit could be dissolved.

Illinois has 1,428 townships, helping to account for more units of government than any other state. It’s a layer of bureaucracy formed primarily to serve rural communities, but most states do without them…

“The real issue, and the reason property taxes are so high in Illinois, is because we have 7,000 units of government,” said state Rep. David McSweeney, a Barrington Hills Republican who’s sponsoring the bill to make it easier to mount township abolition campaigns in McHenry County. “The only way we’re going to reduce property taxes is to consolidate local governments. Townships are just a start.”…

Townships have three basic functions: maintaining roads that aren’t handled by other units of government, assessing property for real estate taxes, and helping the poor through food banks and emergency aid. Townships also often provide transportation for people with disabilities, as well as programs for senior citizens and youths….

Advocates of townships argue that they provide the most local, responsive service for the lowest price. In addition, several studies have found that expected expense reductions from government consolidation never materialized. A Rutgers University study concluded that “cost savings are not assured,” and that “most consolidations fail.”

Americans tend to prefer lower levels of government that they feel is more responsive to their daily needs. Taking the duties that townships do and pushing them up to a larger and more abstract county or state government can feel like ceding control to officials who do not know local conditions.

The article also makes it sound as if the research findings do not support claims that fewer bodies of local government would lead to cost savings. If that is not guaranteed, could a successful effort to abolish townships provide hope to some that government can be rolled back or reduced to some degree?

All said, efforts in Illinois in recent years to eliminate or consolidate units of government has been slow. The state legislature banned the formation of new government bodies and DuPage County slowly is reducing the number.