A friend suggested that I watch the YouTube video of The Scalia Lecture at Harvard Law School presented by Associate Justice Breyer in April 2021. The lecture is entitled “The Authority of the Court and the Peril of Politics.” She warned me that it may be a slog for the average viewer, but she encouraged me to watch at least the last fifteen minutes or so.
She was correct on all counts. I watched about the first half hour before admitting to myself something I already knew – she’s more erudite than I. I skipped ahead to the conclusion, which was well worth watching. Not that the central portion of the lecture wasn’t excellent – it’s interesting, challenging and beautifully, if dryly, presented. Justice Breyer is brilliant, and his points are important commentary on the place of the courts in America. Justice Breyer makes clear that a principal objective of the judicial structure of the Constitution is to have an ultimate decision maker that is not responsive to politics. The more we ask that the Supreme Court follow the political whim of the people, the more we undermine the protections the Constitution affords all of us.
Eventually, however, Justice Breyer acknowledges that the genius of the constitutionally created judicial mechanism is of interest primarily only to the million or so judges and lawyers in the country. The real question, he concludes, is what is it that the other 329 million people in the United States are supposed to do? What makes our governance structure work, and what keeps it strong? He concludes that it comes down to the customs and habits of our people. We can’t make people be good citizens; we only can seek to build and reinforce good civic habits. And what are those habits?
- Civics education.
- Participation in our government and communities.
- Compromise and cooperation. Compromise to make the best decisions we can, then cooperate in implementing those decisions. Why cooperate? Because implicit in the concept of compromise is an agreement that the parties will proceed in good faith with the terms of the compromise, not immediately seek to undermine that which was agreed.
Great stuff. I recommend it highly. But that’s not what I want to talk about today.
Along the way, Justice Breyer mentioned some startling data: From 1950 to 2010, the number of school districts in the United States declined from 84,000 to 13,000. I called Justice Breyer to ask him for his sources, but he hasn’t returned my call. (Insert winking smiley face here!) I’ll give the guy the benefit of the doubt and assume his statement was accurate.
If you think about it, you know where I’m going.
A quick online search yielded a CT Mirror article that said that Connecticut has 172 school districts. Why do we have more than one district per town? Because more or less every town is a separate district, plus we have a variety of regional districts that overlap with towns, like the Capital Region Education Council.
Now, I haven’t done the research, but it’s probably a good guess that the actual number of school districts in Connecticut has increased since 1950 (because we’ve created those regional districts), while the number of school districts across the country has declined by 85%. Just stop and think about that: While the rest of the country was been dramatically consolidating the administration of its education systems, Connecticut, the land of steady habits, has changed very little. We like our towns the way they are.
There are, of course, plenty of arguments to be made that the rest of the country is going to hell in a hand-basket, but I don’t see the advantage that Connecticut realizes by the perpetuation of what amounts to one-room-schoolhouse educational administration. If Connecticut’s approach to education – micro-governance – were so much better than the increasingly consolidated approach being followed by the rest of the country, wouldn’t someone have noticed the difference? Wouldn’t the national trend have reversed itself? Consolidation allows states to take advantage of modern management techniques, including technological advances, which leads to efficiencies, savings, and improved performance of their systems, changes that probably enhance but in any case don’t impair the quality of the education offered their children. Connecticut isn’t educating its children better; we’re just paying more while we get further out of step with the country.
84,000 to 13,000 nationwide. And here we sit.
Hartford and the surrounding towns merged into one governing municipality would be better. Period.
My friends tell me I’m beating a dead horse. (By the way, are kids coming out of our micro-governed Connecticut schools any more likely to know what “beating a dead horse” or “going to hell in a hand basket” mean than kids coming out of schools operated by districts using 21st century management techniques?) I know, I’m tilting at windmills. (No, they won’t understand that, either.) But why does it have to be that way? Why can’t we change? Why can’t we look at our world honestly, acknowledge its flaws, and seek to correct them? Why can’t we compromise and cooperate?
Did you see the news that voters in eastern Washington state have expressed their preference to have their five counties leave Washington and become part of Idaho? Seriously. I don’t know if it will happen, or even if it’s a good idea, but at least some people in Washington are talking about the possibility of change.
Whole counties can talk about changing states, and we can’t talk about more rational ways to manage our towns.
As I’ve said before, it’s time.