Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America that "[i]t is doubtless important to the good of nations that those who govern have virtues or talents; but what is perhaps still more important to them is that those who govern do not have interests contrary to the mass of the governed; for in that case the virtues could become almost useless and the talents fatal."
This idea – that the actions of those who govern ought to be consistent with the interests of the mass – is the very foundation of democracy, a tool meant to serve not only as an enabler of accountable government, but also as a safeguard against government abuses.
American society today is vastly different from what Tocqueville encountered in 1831, and the extent to which government reflects the will of "the people" has changed dramatically, and in different ways. In many cases – the granting of universal suffrage, for example – the change has, rightly, extended greater power to those who constitute the governed, and in doing so has brought the nation into closer harmony with its founding principles.
Often, however (and with greater frequency recently) change has come in the opposite direction, resulting not in an expansion, but rather a contraction, of popular power. Increasingly, the actions of those who govern reveal hostility toward the interests of the governed – and instead reflect the will of a small but influential (re: wealthy) group of special interests.
One won't find a more egregious example of this than the public education system, nor a place where the consequences for education have been more disastrous than in Nevada. Existing supposedly to provide children with the tools they need to lead productive lives, Nevada's public education system instead has become a self-serving entity more interested in growing its own political influence than in offering quality education. Too busy catering to the powerful teacher union, among other special interest groups, our elitist educational establishment class simply cannot be bothered with something as trivial as the interests of the people.
This contempt for ordinary Nevadans manifested itself most clearly in the Board of Education's recent decision to meet increased public demand for charter schools by halting the creation of new charter schools. This seems absurd, but is easily explained: Charter schools operate freer from the controls of the educational establishment than do traditional public schools, and thus are seen as a populist threat to the establishment's grip on power.
Nevadans ought to be fed up with these kinds of shenanigans – and, according to a survey conducted for the Nevada Policy Research Institute by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, they are.
The statewide survey, conducted in December 2007 (and available at npri.org), sought to gauge Nevadans' attitudes toward the state's education system. To summarize: They're not happy.
Asked to rate the state's public school system, only 28 percent said it was either "excellent" or "good." Given a list of five types of schools, a paltry 11 percent said they would prefer to send their own children to a regular public school.
Yet, true to form, our public education apparatus (with its many roadblocks to choice) forces the vast majority of Nevada's kids into the regular public system – which a stunning 89 percent of Nevadans reject.
Not surprisingly, the survey also reveals significant public appetite for alternatives to the traditional system. Majorities indicated support for several measures that would increase choice, including charter schools (55 percent), special needs scholarships (56 percent) and school vouchers (54 percent). Additionally, expanding educational freedom is far more popular with Nevadans than the left's tired argument that the greatest obstacle to improving education is a lack of funding. Only a third of Nevadans are buying that.
Nevada's education system has underperformed for a long time, and now, the extent to which the people are frustrated – and the kinds of reforms they want – have been expressed clearly. The only question remaining is whether the elites who govern will finally begin to listen – or whether Nevadans will have to take matters into their own hands.
Andy Matthews is vice president for communications at the Nevada Policy Research Institute. This commentary was first published in the March 2008 issue of the Nevada Business Journal.