Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Administrative State Strikes Home

One of Tocqueville's most penetrating predictions was that democracy may become despotism as

the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a net-work of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided: men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting: such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to be nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.

For several years I've looked forward anxiously to the day when my family would collide with the public education system in America. That day arrived yesterday, and my anxiety has been confirmed.

The school sign-up system in our California town is as follows: you can go to the school assigned to you by your address, or request a transfer. You may select only one school to transfer to, and it is a lottery system. If you pick a school and then lose the lottery, you are out of luck and must attend the assigned school. Our assigned school is not very good, so of course we've selected a transfer.

The system for transfers is that you bring paperwork to the district office — this must be handed in in person — which gives you a code. Using that code you complete registration online. Seemed roundabout, but okay. Last night I used the code and registered my son.

That was when I figured out the twisted logic behind the system. Registration requires filling out an enormous and highly intrusive form in which detailed questions are asked about your child's background. Did he grow up in the city, a town, or the country? What's his race? What languages are spoken in the home? Do both parents live with him? And on, and on. These questions are not optional, and the only way to complete registration is to answer them. All of them.

If I were given this form in person, I could take it back, complain, and try to get them to sign him up anyway. But what's my recourse online? I could still go in and complain, but they have a "process", which no doubt is out of the hands of the district functionaries. So I'm forced to give in to this grilling. (I could also lie, which I considered, but I have a tough time with that. I'd also probably be breaking some sort of law.)

It strikes me that this system was designed to make it difficult to circumvent. And that's where Tocqueville comes in. "Network of small complicated rules"? The school system has that, in spades! "Energetic characters cannot penetrate"? Sorry, you can't complain, it's online. "The will of man is not shattered, but softened"? Of course. The lottery gives you hope of bettering your situation, but no certainty, thus the responsible parent cannot properly plan while staying in the public education system.

I suppose I should get used to this, since thirteen more years of it lie ahead. But I don't have to like it.

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