Ms. Meier, tear down this wall

More
than ten years ago, in what now seems like another life, I lived and studied in
the former Soviet Union. I was an exchange
student in Krasnodar, Russia,
not far from Ukraine and Georgia. Krasnodar is the
heartland of the “red belt,” where nostalgia for the Communist era still runs
high – despite all the dysfunction caused by that system, especially in its
death throes in the 1980s and 90s.

More democracy, not less, is what this movement is about.

Given
my own experiences, I read Deborah Meier’s recent
column
comparing today’s education reformers in America to Boris Yeltsin (of all
people!) with some trepidation. Meier is right that well-connected “new
Russians” did a bang-up job buying state-owned property for a song in the 90s
(really stealing it), creating billionaires overnight while leaving most
ordinary citizens impoverished. She’s wrong, however, in thinking that “the
people” ever controlled that property in the Soviet era, or that oligarchs and ed
reformers both “smell property like a beast after prey.”

Despite
Meier’s claims about Yeltsin doing away with “inconvenient” ownership of the
state’s wealth by “the people,” wealth in the USSR was owned and controlled (in
fact, if not in name) by the nomenklatura who ran industry, agriculture,
and education for the socialist state. It goes without saying that party
officials didn’t suffer from the food shortages that hit Russia as late
as 1990; “the
people” did
. To the extent that ordinary Russians got their hands on the
finer things in life (fine food and clothes, televisions, etc.) it was often
through connections in the West. A joke from the late Brezhnev era has the
Soviet premier stopping at a Moscow
apartment to see how ordinary people are living under his rule. He knocks on
the door and tells the little boy who answers that he (Brezhnev) is responsible
for all the new creature comforts they enjoy. The boy turns away, excited, to
announce to his parents that Uncle Mitya from America has arrived to visit!

That
history lesson aside, Meier’s suggestion that education reformers “smell
property like a beast after prey” in their efforts to improve America’s schools and provide more
choices to parents is very troubling. Most of us, I suspect, agree with her
that parents deserve more control over their children’s schooling. That’s why
school choice (and funding to support it!) is so central to the agendas of many
reform organizations. It’s not as if the Gates and Walton foundations aspire to
own the charter schools they invest in; on the contrary, meaningful
representation of parents on boards and serious responsiveness to the needs of
families are key priorities of the private philanthropists who support choice.
More democracy, not less, is what this movement is about.

We
agree on one thing: Nostalgia for the past (Soviet or otherwise) is not going
to get us anywhere. Looking forward, Meier might find more friends on this side
of the wall than she expected.

More By Author

Related Articles