Accountability, Public and Private

1 04 2014

That there have been blog posts about incivility in the debate over the privatization of education–particularly discussions of charter schools–is weird, but maybe it shouldn’t be surprising.

Byron Sigcho of the University of Illinois at Chicago has an interview where he talks about the “accountability” of charter schools–specifically he says that charter schools, despite getting public money, are not “accountable” to the public. In defining accountability as, in essence, being under the democratic supervision of people in their role as citizens–”electors”–and taxpayers, Sigcho highlights why charter schools in particular evoke such rancor: they are a distilled example of the ideological divide and normative values of the sides of the debates, neoliberals and liberals on the one hand, and the social democratic/unionist left on the other.

I won’t feign a lack of a position on the issue of school privatization: agin’ it, with some caveats (for example, I support the existence of charter schools as laboratory schools). That doesn’t mean I don’t often consider the arguments of the opponents. I think the arguments of popular charter supporters like Jonathan Chait or Matthew Yglesias are perfectly sound, I just vociferously disagree with some of the premises. That may just be one of those intractable differences.

For example, charters, by one way of thinking, are more accountable to the public. This is because, unlike public schools, children aren’t predestined to attend a school by virtue of their parents’ address. Parents have no choice but to send their kids to the assigned school. The whole point of charter schools, after all, is that those schools that fail to create sufficiently good outcomes to cause parents to choose those schools will lose their access to the schools market–i.e., their charters will be revoked if they are underutilized. What could be more accountable than that? Not only that, it is only parents of schoolchildren to whom charters are accountable, not the entire public! It isn’t fair, the argument goes, that people without children and parents who use private schooling have as much or even more say in which schools survive and how schools are run. Let the preferences of the users of the public school system, through the aggregation of their individual choice, mold the school system. I mean, duh.

Sellers of goods and services are the most important kind of accountable: by definition, they only provide those goods and services that people are willing to use.

This is where the disagreement comes in. I don’t think sellers of goods and services are all that accountable, precisely because they’re not accountable to those who don’t buy from them, even if they have an impact on them. Take any number of big corporations that are the subject of boycotts. I may not want them to build a Big Box store in my neighborhood, and consciously choose not to shop there, preferring my local small businesses. As the Big Box drowns the small businesses and unionized shops, it decreases my choices, depresses local wages, causes an adverse environmental impact, I’m indisputably impacted. But there’s no way to make them accountable to me, except democratically.

With education, people on one side may see it more as a non-rivalrous public good. Charter supporters may see it more as a something of a commodity meant to provide an individual, material benefit (e.g., improve ability to get a better job). Improving hirability is definitely one function of an education, but having more critical thinkers, people with stronger social skills (and bonds), artists, and citizens are just as important–they benefit the public, they’re a public good, like having more firefighters or museums. Thus a strong educational system inures to everybody’s benefit (or detriment), and “schools” should be accountable to the public, not just the individual consumers of the service.

This may be why the mere idea of schools that are privately owned, rather than publicly run, is so instantly offensive to some. The answer, that the public exercises control through the chartering process itself, is unsatisfying: first, because it makes the supposed advantage of charters nonsensical. A charter chain that has high enrollment would be both hard to close, and objectively successful. How could a public body feasibly revoke their charter? Not to mention, it’s hard to imagine any efficient process that allows the public to manage what are in essence administrative contracting decisions.

This gets to the risk of rent-seeking and regulatory capture by large charter chains, but that’s a sufficiently different issue to merit its own discussion, as a practical effect (rather than a base assumption) of privatization. It would be interesting to see more discussion of school privatization in terms of accuracy and testability of the premises underlying the rationale for privatization.

The Ninetiesest Picture Contest

16 03 2014

Well, here’s my nominee.

How Nineties? Let me Count the Ways

(1) The mies-en-scene: L.A.’s Venice beach walk-about or whatever it’s called, popular 90′s coming-to-L.A. locale;

(2) This is a picture of news about music being reported on “Music Television”

(3) Tabitha Soren

(4) Tupac Shakur

(5) Tupac Shakur with a shirt on.

(6) Tupac Shakur with a shirt on under a vest.

(7) Tupac Shakur with a shirt on under a vest under a reasonably-sized chain and medallion.

(8) Tabitha Soren’s Natalie-Merchant-y sweater (being worn in essence to the beach)

(9) Ol’ girl’s blue flannel and light blue jeans and Merry-Go-Round-ass pointed shoes.

(10) Bunny-ears bandana

(11) Dude’s baggy white pants under black t-shirt.


Now accepting nominations.

My Earliest Memory of Pop Culture Criticism

12 03 2014

“Wait, his single name is ‘Virgil’? I don’t know. I don’t like this. This is racist right?”

To All The Women We’ve Failed to Love Before

8 03 2014

Here’s one for International Women’s Day.

If there’s one thing all human societies throughout history have in common, it is that all things being equal, you were probably worse off in them if you were a woman. Better to be rich than poor; but better to be a rich man than a rich woman. Bad to be a poor man; worse to be a poor woman. Bad to be a man in a 19th century imperial colony; worse to be his sister. That inescapable fact is to me the most powerful piece of evidence for why feminism, or women’s equality if you prefer, is the most important social movement of ever.

On my Twitter timeline this week, somebody posted an article about how so few major metropolitan museum directors were women. I’ll be honest that when I first read that, I gave a little mental eye roll. Don’t we have bigger things to worry about it?

But it doesn’t take much thought or introspection to realize something so tragic about human history that is suggested by that factoid: for essentially all of it, women were uniquely denied the opportunity to cultivate their talents and contribute openly and freely to public, civic, scientific, and artistic discourse. Of that isn’t to imply that countless individual women through history didn’t find means of expressing themselves or exerting influence (they certainly had their labor exploited, uncompensated, at an unrivaled tick); I only mean that the nature of a patriarchal society made any such expression much more difficult and often unrecognized.

That is a tragedy. We were collectively denied the voice, and talents, and genius of more than half of the human population. And it isn’t as though if we had a more egalitarian society, Leviathan would have been written by Thomasina Hobbes or the Kuomintang would have been overthrown by Maoina Zedong. It isn’t as though, in other words, there is a defined ceiling to how many great works of art or history-changing political movements there can be; one more influential woman doesn’t mean one fewer influential man. It means, plain and simple, that for no good reason–in fact, for an affirmatively bad reason–human society wasted the talents of billions–billions–of people.

That collective loss to humanity can never be recovered, and we are all so much obviously the poorer for it.

And that isn’t to mention the big point of course: the billions–again, billions–of individual instances of injustice suffered by each one of those women denied opportunities, and often denied her very humanity.

The debt owed by humanity to the women who over generations fought for a vision of equality is in essence limitless. Every single person on Earth has reaped an enormous benefit from the enriching of human civilization since the initial flowering of equality. Feminism isn’t just one among many social justice movements; it’s the ballgame. People will argue about means and ends, and where intersections with other struggles (class struggle, ahem) are the most critical; and of course the various social justice movements are similarly critical. But the unbroken chain of repression of women stretching back to the earliest human societies, its ubiquity, and the felt impact on half of humanity is unquestionably unique, and inescapably unjustifiable.

So, thanks millions of women, for all your efforts. Humankind itself is just now lurching towards it’s true potential. Here’s hoping it’s Star Trek: The Next Generation-esque.

Daniel, Aaron and I Create the City of the Future

4 03 2014


Daniel Kay Hertz has a great response to my post on density. Based on his response, I think that I overemphasized some disagreements of, at the expense of my agreement with, the idea of deregulating residential zoning in order to encourage more density. Part of this is because I excised two sections to keep the post under 8 pages, because I am a kind and merciful soul. The net effect of course is that some important stuff was left out.

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Re-Regulate, Don’t De-Regulate, for Affordable Housing

3 03 2014

A recent bit of productive back-and-forth between two of my favorite writers on urban policy, Aaron Renn and Daniel Kay Hertz, provides a good opportunity to talk about the idea, increasingly popular, of zoning deregulation as a path to creating affordable housing in desirous urban cores. In this context, deregulation can mean one of two things–either abrogating zoning restrictions altogether (or limiting them to general designations, like “residential” or “industrial”), or “upzoning,” meaning changing current zoning that allows only single-family homes or townhomes to significantly denser standards, like mid-rises.

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What William Riker and Neoliberal Technocrats Have in Common

31 10 2013

What William Riker and Neoliberals Have in Common

nothing obvs


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