On the State’s Tests

Daniel Webster, one of America’s most prominent statesmen and orators, once noted that, “Good intentions will always be pleaded for every assumption of authority. It is hardly too strong to say that the Constitution was made to guard the people against the dangers of good intentions. There are men in all ages who mean to govern well, but they mean to govern. They promise to be good masters, but they mean to be masters.” Those who have imposed the current PARCC/CMAS/Common Core testing regime on our schools and students cannot be ignored without consequence. They have the force of law on their side, and for now at least, we must all sit obediently and do as we are told. We have purchased the computers, created the testing schedules, pushed off the classes we would like to have taught, and we can offer no alternatives to taking the test that could be construed as an inducement to opt out. We do not support the test, but neither can we support a mass opt out. We are too small and too vulnerable and our masters, as Webster described them, are too strong and too prone to retaliation. Doing so would endanger more than our rankings or our enrollment, but potentially our funding and even our charter. We respect that our parents must act in accordance with their consciences, and we hope that these tests can become the basis for meaningful conversations with your children about the proper role of government in their lives.

The reasons for Ridgeview’s opposition to this testing regime have been documented elsewhere, but our commitment to opposing that regime remains unwavering. Parents who have written to ask what baleful effects their opting out might have for Ridgeview have been placed in the awkward position of choosing between their children and their school’s welfare. That it is even a contest says much about their commitment to the school and its curriculum.

The short answer is that we cannot be certain as to what political or legal ramifications the school might face were a substantial number of its students to opt out of testing. What has informed our attitude to date has been something like Abraham Lincoln’s espousal that we ought to seek a redress of the laws at our earliest convenience, but to abide by them until they are altered. While it is not my intention to unnecessarily plumb the obscure depths of political philosophy, suffice it to say that it seems fair to question whether Lincoln had too great a reverence for the law. Could a man be a bad man by virtue of being a good citizen? To draw this to a finer point, how is one to decide given the choice between being a good parent and a good citizen when all respectable people contend that they ought to endeavor to be both?

One might argue that the above is simply a logical fallacy. It could be argued that the assumption that a parent who allows their child to test is necessarily a poor one is unwarranted and thus any conclusions based upon such argumentation are likely false. However, the parents who are opposed clearly “believe” that to subject their children to this testing does nothing to improve their minds, spirits, or bodies, and if the parent, like the physician, draws upon the maxim of “first, do no harm” (primum non nocere), what maxim is it that the state draws upon for its authority here? Whose opinion, the parent’s or the state’s, should mostly closely inform what is in the best interest of the child?

Except in cases of abuse, Ridgeview believes that the parent’s authority in educational matters supersedes that of the state. If this were not so, it would make little sense for us to regard ourselves as a school of choice. Parents choose the school, and the individual sovereignty that makes that choice possible, informs a parent’s ability to opt their child out of testing. We respect their choice in both instances.

That we do not know and cannot ably answer the question of what Ridgeview has to fear in its parents opting students out says much about the state of the law. “It will be of little avail to the people,” wrote James Madison, “that the laws are made by men of their own choice, if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood.” The Colorado Department of Education itself seemed confused on the matter. Confused not only about this, but about the extent of its authority and was recently told as much by Colorado’s Attorney General Cynthia Coffman. One half of the politicians are scrambling to protect what they’ve done while the other half try to overturn it. It’s unclear whether either side has much regard for the general welfare, the common good, or the disinterested agenda of providing students with an education that is both wholesome and edifying. Ironically, Article IX of the Colorado State Constitution declares that Colorado will educate its people “gratuitously,” but refrains from stating the aims of so doing.

What education is “for” in Colorado is more a matter of opinion than fact. So long as a school had the autonomy to choose what an education was for and design its curriculum accordingly, educational choice meant something to parents in Colorado. When factions bickered and decided to impose a uniform standard on all students, the real victims were children and the first casualty was liberty. This strike against our children was the product of too many mistaking for too long that schooling was merely a euphemism for daycare. The planners designed a system that took advantage of that situation, and finally the “weighing and measuring” they had conducted for years became too invasive for even the most passive of parents. We can say that we did this to ourselves and that we allowed it to happen to us, but Madison recognized the paradox inherent in majoritarian politics: “In republican Government the majority however composed, ultimately give the law. Wherever therefore an apparent interest or common passion unites a majority what is to restrain them from unjust violations of the rights and interests of the minority, or of individuals?” A majority is not less guilty of unjust violations of rights because it is a majority. We cannot suppose that the planners know better than parents what they ought to want from their children’s education. Given that, it simply does not make sense that a just solution will be or can be uniform.

The uniform solution that has been imposed has been imposed from the top down by planners, politicians, and bureaucrats. “Of all tyrannies,” wrote C.S. Lewis, “a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their consciences.” To introduce Lewis to Madison, one might say something that both would recognize: the tyranny that torments us is democratic despotism, or the tyranny of the majority, or the shortsighted delegation of authority over our children from ourselves to the state. It is this that has given us our laws, and so while Ridgeview can apologize for the inconvenience, we are not apologizing for ourselves. We stood up, we spoke out, and at the end of this circus, we will still have honored our contract with the District and the State. As a school, we will be poorer for it, and our students less educated than they would have been, but we will honor our word to both the District and our parents by having made the testing available to the students and respected the choices of our parents. When you read the next test scores and rankings in the months to come, please remember that you chose a school for your child that put character, respect, and integrity before the plans of politicians.

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