Friday, February 8, 2008

Give Process a Chance

We had a public hearing tonight about the recommendation of the Chicago Public School Superintent Arne Duncan to relocate Edison Regional Gifted Center into a facility that will be shared with another (middle) school. The gym was packed with Edison blue, and also with neighborhood residents, many of whom favor the move so that the building can be used as a neighborhood school.

Edison parents spoke with eloquence and passion about why this proposal is bad news. Some came prepared with reams of documentation and research about gifted education in stand-alone programs. Some spoke with tears, some with sarcasm, some with anger--but everyone behaved (for the most part) with civility and respect.

(There was a tiny shouting match when one Edison speaker suggested that perhaps the neighborhood kids should be bused to Albany Park; and the neighborhood speaker who claimed that Edison parents accused neighborhood residents of being racist was vociferously contradicted.)

Some local residents were unhappy and walked out of the meeting because after an hour and a half, none of them had been called on. Sign-up for speaking started at 4 p.m., and they took the speakers in the order in which they signed up. I signed up at about 4:35, and I didn't get to have my say until 2 1/2 hours into the meeting.

I argued, of course, for a fair and inclusive decision-making process. Here's my speech:

Abraham Lincoln was arguing with a political opponent. "How many legs does a cow have?" he asked his adversary.

"Four, of course," came the disgusted reply.

"That's right," agreed Lincoln. "Now suppose you call the cow's tail a leg; how many legs would the cow have?

"Why, five, of course," was the confident reply.

"Now, that's where you're wrong," said Lincoln. "Calling a cow's tail a leg doesn't make it a leg."

Calling this last minute forum a “process” does not make it a process. Calling something fair when it’s not does not make it so. Saying that a decision is for the good of the children does not make it good for the children.

Giving something the right spin and making it sound good does not make it right and good. What makes it right and good, especially when honest and fair-minded people disagree, is the process that you used to arrive at the decision.

In government, in management, in human relationships—pretty much in all of life, fair process is the bridge that turns war into peace, mutiny into morale, and personal conflict into reconciliation.

Husbands and wives—at least those in healthy relationships--rely on process to make their marriages work. Successful businesses rely on inclusive, transparent processes to motivate their employees and remain profitable. Freedom-loving governments—and their governmental bodies like public school systems—are established based on the principles of fair process.

In this battleground over our little school, it does not matter if you are in favor of the move to Albany Park or opposed to it. Frankly, I myself am a tiny bit ambivalent—I can see both positive and negative points about it.

But what I am NOT ambivalent about is the process that got us to this point where unelected administrators get to make decisions about the future of my child’s education in the absence of a fair and open process.

I am NOT ambivalent—and in fact, I’m livid—about the comments of Peter Cunningham who was quoted as a spokesman for CPS in a recent article in the Reader. He said we are getting off the issue by focusing on what he calls “parental notification.” He said, “Are you pissed off how we rolled it out? Fine. But to make a big issue out of who knew what when is silly. The real issue is whether this is right for the kids.”

This is wrong on so many levels it makes me want to drink gin straight out of the bottle. What Peter Cunningham refers to as “parental notification” and what he means when he says “how we rolled it out” is PROCESS. He is saying that process is silly; that process does not matter.

He sounds very noble when he says that the real issue is whether “this is right for the kids.”

But Peter Cunningham and Arne Duncan and the rest of the bureaucrats at CPS are really and truly missing the boat on this one, because guess what? It’s my child and your child that they are making unilateral decisions about, and it is not silly or unimportant to care about the process and the rationale and the politics that goes into those decisions.

In fact, it’s my job as a parent. And when you suggest that we’re doing this because we’re ‘pissed off’ and that we’re not focusing on whether this is right for the kids, you are walking on very thin ice, my friend. You do not even want to go down that road.

Yes, this is about what is right for the kids. And how do we determine what is right for the kids? You got it. Process.

Process matters when adults disagree and need to reach consensus. Process matters—and tea gets dumped into harbors—when governments try to impose taxation without representation.
And process matters when one tiny school in one large and bureaucratic public school system gets shuffled around like a tune on an I-pod.

So here’s what I recommend: Stop this bulldozer of a plan to move Edison. Instead, set up a process that includes all the stakeholders—Edison parents, north side residents, Albany Park residents, CPS—and gives everyone a chance to have their say, ask--and get answers to--their questions, and solve problems together. Build in enough time so that parents have choices about where their child will attend school. Make sure that everyone feels heard and no one is marginalized in the decision-making process.

At the end, we probably still won’t all agree. That’s OK. But ultimately, you’ll have more understanding, more consensus, more and better ideas. Whatever the final outcome looks like, it will be fair, because the process will have been fair. And then the decision-makers can legitimately say that they’ve done what is best for the children.

Give Process a Chance.

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