Why don’t we riot

Dear Reader,

I want you to come with me down a philosophical rabbit hole. A rabbit hole that explores the implications of an important administrative law case that was decided in 1970, and its message for us, the recipients of reformers’ manipulations in our educational system.

I understand that this sounds dubious and possibly boring (and trust me, administrative law is mind crushingly boring) but stick with me.

I have been wondering a lot about what keeps us, the parents of children in public schools, from rioting. Our children go to broken down schools that lose resources every year, our teachers are fired, our field trips are cancelled, and we spend endless hours, endless hours fundraising.

DSC_0267What keeps us from going bonkers on elected officials? Most parents will do anything for their children, and there is nothing more important than education, and yet, we accept this state of affairs. Why are we so well behaved?

Back in the 1960s, there was a disabled man in New York by the name of John Kelly who was on welfare. Kelly was ordered by his caseworker to move into a place called the Barbara Hotel or his welfare benefits would be terminated. He moved into the hotel for a week or so but it turned out to be a drug den, and so then he moved out. His caseworker discovered this and then his welfare benefits were promptly terminated.

A welfare rights organization sued the state of New York based not on the unfairness of the situation to Mr. Kelly but on procedural grounds. This is important. Procedures are a type of system. They are organizing principals. And what they argued was that Mr Kelly’s Due Process rights were violated because he was not given a hearing prior to having his welfare benefits terminated. He was given no opportunity to be heard.

Now when I was in law school, I was taught about Goldberg v. Kelly by an excellent professor and a very good man. This case set up important procedural rights before the government can terminate benefits to its recipients. But this case has always really gotten under my skin. Because Mr. Kelly violated the welfare regulations by not obeying his caseworker. And there was next to no chance that a due process procedure was going to change the outcome.

Now my professor argued that even though it would not change the outcome, it was still very important to give Mr. Kelly a chance to be heard in order to respect the dignity of Mr. Kelly.

Now I am the oldest child of a single mother with five children from Sunnyslope, AZ. And I objected to poor people being treated this way. So I went up to my professor after class, and I said, I think giving Mr. Kelly the illusion that he would be able to change things when he really could not was just about the worse thing that you could do to him, and it in no way respected his dignity.

This professor argued to me that I was missing the point. Allowing Mr. Kelly to participate gave the proceedings a normative legitimacy and people who were allowed to participate in the process had better feelings about the procedure and it’s adverse outcomes if they were given the chance to be heard.

It is a systems issue. People are less likely to riot if they are given the illusion that they had an opportunity to change the outcome.

Not incidentally, my professor had been the clerk to Judge Garrity so I think he knew something about what happens when a procedure does not have the sheen of normative legitimacy.

I have been thinking about this case and this conversation as I think back to all of the budget hearings we attended this winter and spring.

I’ve been thinking about all of the crying, the pleading, the students begging the school committee to help us. I’ve been thinking about the socialist alternative that jumped up in the middle of the meetings to make speeches. The police officers who hovered threateningly by students they thought were too disruptive. The student representative on the school committee who broke down in hysterics discussing this years budget.

I’ve been thinking about the whole circus.

There are people who can change the situation. The real decision makers are old men who hid behind foundations. They do not have children in the Boston Public School system, and many of them don’t even live in Boston. They have seats at the table. They are being heard but you are not invited to that conversation.

Because at the end of the day, the school committee shrugged its shoulders and said, there was nothing they could do.

Because that is not the point of the school committee. The point of the school committee is to give the proceedings a normative legitimacy.

The point of the school committee is to keep us from rioting.