“Choice” without a voice

“Choice” without a voice

- in Progressive Voices

Although their rallying cry has been about "parental choice," there is nothing in the actions of the narrow Wake County School Board majority that even hints that they truly want a participatory government that values the opinions or choices of the people they are supposed to serve. From the moment the new board members took their seats, they began to work without allowing any voice from the public.

Any illusions that the people of Wake County may have had on this matter were dashed last fall when the group dismantled the student assignment plan, which had required some modicum of socioeconomic diversity, without any public comment.

The board then sent out a survey, originally only available online, to ask if parents were happy with their children's school assignments. An overwhelming 94.5% of parents answered that they were, but that was not the answer the board wanted to hear. Instead of respecting the parents, they ended mandatory year-round schools, a move which will certainly create clashes over growth and overcrowding, and moved ahead with ditching the diversity policy.

When it became obvious that such action would be met with dissent, the board majority began to insulate itself from criticism. In the name of "financial responsibility," the board withdrew from several school board associations. Such groups not only provide advice on how to run a school board, they may also provide accountability. But Wake County will never know whether these associations would have criticized or supported the school board's decisions. By dropping membership, the board majority tuned out the voices of yet another set of concerned education experts.

School board meetings, which used to be opportunities for parents to discuss issues with the board, have become occasions where parents listen to pronouncements. When the board majority anticipated dissonant voices that would clash with their five-part harmony, they set up obstacles to silence or limit the opposition. Tickets were required to enter a meeting space that was too small to accommodate the expected crowd. While it was easily foreseeable that many people wanted to attend and speak at the meeting, the school board turned down an opportunity to hold the meeting in a larger space offered up by local media outlets.

More recently, the board majority has cut the number of meetings in half, down to once a month. Parents who were already stretched to get to meetings now have even fewer opportunities to speak. Most board committees were also jettisoned. The committee meetings allowed the public to see what may come up at board meetings and possibly comment beforehand. Now, the work of those committees will be done in darkness without any citizen participation.

For a board majority that ran on a platform of (and that continuously speaks about) giving parents a "choice" in their children's future, it is especially hypocritical to deny parents a chance to express those choices. By shutting down the voice of the opposition, they have also shut down the voices of their supporters.

In other words, without a voice there is no choice. And that is simply what the people of Wake County have now – a non-participatory government in which citizens do not have a voice and the choices are made for them.

Christopher Hill is the Director of the Education and Law Project at the North Carolina Justice Center.