GRAVES: On local control - unquestioned principle not always soundAn awful lot of what gets argued is, well, just plain hypocritical.
By: Joe Graves, Mitchell superintendent
As we enter now into the real meat of South Dakota’s 2013 legislative session, I am reminded of the various analogies people use for the process of lawmaking. Some compare it to the making of sausage, encouraging you not to watch it if you ever plan to consume the end product. Others use military analogies, with one party constantly working to prevail over the other. (If such is the appropriate analogy, it is a very lopsided battle in our state.) The high-minded set compare it to a debating society, in which intellect and logic weed out fallacy and supposition unsupported by data and research, leaving only the best and brightest of ideas to cross the finish line into law.
Like the story of the blind men who first experience an elephant, I suspect all of these are right at times, with each analogy capturing an aspect of the truth and none of them the entire truth. Allow me to add just one more analogy in an attempt to capture a bit more of that reality that is the legislative process. Lawmaking is like the dishonest suitor who pursues his ends through arguments other than those he genuinely believes or intends. His lips speak only of love and honorable intentions while his motives fall far short of the mark. Remembering that I am speaking only of one aspect of lawmaking, it is not my intent to defame the whole process, just to point out that an awful lot of what gets argued is, well, just plain hypocritical.
One of my favorite arguments from legislators, lobbyists, citizens, advocates, etc., is that of local control. In the formal academic discipline of ethics, one of the rules for making ethical decisions is that tough calls are best made by those closest to, most affected by, the “call.” I can think of a million counter-arguments to this notion — e.g., people mired in a moral dilemma are sometimes so bogged down by it that they can’t think straight, sometimes a bird’s-eye view provides a better look at the full ethical landscape, etc. — but it remains true that the man wrestling with the bear has a better idea of its full weight than the man reflecting upon “bearness.” Most of the time, it really is better to leave decisions to those at the local level.
Thus, for example, those currently arguing for a new law allowing schools to arm teachers and/or “sentinels” are arguing that doing so doesn’t require any school district to do so. It just allows them to do so if they wish. It simply provides local control. Now I don’t believe in any way, shape or form that those advocating this bill are doing so because it provides local control. In truth, I believe they see this as a real solution for schools far distant from a police department or sheriff’s office or that they see this as a way to not have to pick up the costs of hiring scores of armed guards for schools, or that this is a great way to put up a barrier to those advocating other safety measures such as gun control, which they find anathema. Nevertheless, local control is a great manifest argument.
Meanwhile, those arguing against this legislation, many educator groups among them, just hate the idea of placing guns in schools. But, wait, you say, this shouldn’t be a problem because if they hate it this much, they can simply not arm employees or sentinels in their schools. But what they also know is that if such is allowed, it is very possible the real debate over this whole thing will move from the Legislature to the local level and create a massive headache for them. Better to simply not allow the change at all and be done with it. The problem is, of course, that these are the same people who use the “local control” issue about all sorts of other issues when it suits them. Many advocates against the permissibility of arming employees/sentinels and thus not allowing local control are the same people who will consistently argue that all other meaningful educational issues should be determined locally. Unfortunately, the same is largely true of those on the other side of the issue, as well. “Local control” is too often simply a debating technique to be employed when it suits you and ignored when it does not.
So how do we escape from this hypocritical fallacy? One way would be to find an example in which local control truly is not a good idea and try to figure out from that the generalized benefit which overrides it. One ideal (and relevant) one is the school finance formula, which equalizes at the state level the per-pupil funding for schools in the general fund. While people can and do argue over the amount of per-pupil funding, most agree that such funding should be state-determined. The reason is that without this, students from impoverished areas (property assessment-poor) would have stingily funded schools while those from affluent ones would enjoy comparative largesse. The kids already most likely to struggle in poverty would have their life chances further reduced by schools struggling in poverty. In other words, when the issue is one of fundamental and critical rights, one in which equal treatment is of the essence of democracy and human rights and the American dream, and when local control will result in serious unequal treatment, then local control is trumped by our high regard for such human rights. When no such stakes are in peril, then local control should prevail.
Which, if law-making had debate judges or referees (and wooing still had sage chaperones as in days of yore), would be a workable and sensible solution. But it doesn’t and so it isn’t. And so “local control” will continue to be an oratorical truncheon by which advocates pummel their enemies in the legislative arena and who are then bludgeoned in turn by it when the next issue arises.