Tyranny of a tiny minority

Democracy settles differences between competing visions of public life, so after every election there are inevitably happy winners and unhappy losers.

Under our traditional “50%-plus-1” majority rule, a whopping “50%-minus-1” losing minority could feel jilted after an election, which is an awful lot of unhappiness within a community. Rarely are ballots evenly split, so the unhappy losing camp is usually far less than half the number of voters.

Here in the US, mythic birthplace and bastion of ‘majority rule,’ we sometimes intentionally allow a minority to win on election day. This was possible in LASD a couple years ago when we voted on Measure E, the school parcel tax increase. If just one third of voters had voted against Measure E it would have failed, since a two thirds supermajority is required for such tax measures. (Luckily, Measure E passed, but only just barely.)

Allowing a one-third minority to overrule majority sentiment is like political leverage; each No vote cancels out two Yes votes.

Parcel tax measures require a two-thirds majority Yes vote, and so can be particularly difficult to pass, because even semi-organized opposition can be hard to overcome even if it isn’t richly funded. But “one-third/two-thirds” is the farthest we stray from majority rule. We would never dream of allowing a 10% minority camp to win over a 90% majority. That would be tyranny of a tiny minority.

If someone’s rights are at stake, it’s an altogether different story. “Majority rule” is suspended when fundamental rights are on the line.

We recently learned this (again) through our experience with California’s Prop 8 and the ensuing legal fight over marriage rights and equality. When the courts ruled that marriage is a fundamental right of all adults, including homosexuals, then even overwhelming majority voter sentiment in favor of outlawing same-sex marriage is disallowed. Even a 99% majority opinion is insufficient to deprive someone of fundamental rights.

How does this relate to charter law? I think it’s important to consider whether we want local school districts to be governed democratically or whether anyone has rights that trump majority rule.

Q:  Does any child have a fundamental right to a seat in a ‘choice’ school if their democratically-run district doesn’t want to operate ‘choice’ schools? Is ‘choice’ a fundamental right in California public education?
A:  No.

Then on what basis is a school district’s authority usurped by a county Board of Education in re: charter petitions? If voters in a local school district prefer a consistent, high-quality educational program across all its schools, and if the schools are successful by government measures, on what grounds are local voters’ ballots nullified by an external agent of government?

This is most definitely the situation we are in today in Santa Clara County.

Through the years and for a wide variety of reasons having nothing to do with remediating poor education, tiny minority groups have created (or threatened) a charter petition to extract from the district that which it was not otherwise willing to provide:

  • Los Altos School District: “Trustees closed our neighborhood school and consolidated our student body with another at a different campus. We parents don’t agree with the Trustees’ decision, so we want to create a charter school. The charter’s location, size, curriculum and student body will all be the same as the neighborhood school that was closed.”
  • Palo Alto Unified School District: “Trustees refused to create a Mandarin language magnet program in response to parent requests. The district offers a Spanish language immersion program and we want a similar Mandarin program. Since the Trustees won’t accommodate us, we’ll start a MI charter school.”
  • Sunnyvale Elementary School District: “Trustees denied parents’ request to expand the district’s K-5 magnet program to middle school grades. We love our magnet program and don’t want our kids to be forced out and into district middle schools. If the district refuses to expand the program we will form a charter school.”

In all cases, district Trustees elected by voters to balance the needs, priorities and resources of the entire district must decide whether modifying their educational program to suit a tiny group is justified. If they refuse the demands of these groups, they instead face a secessionist charter petition. The group might be just 2% of voters in the district or 5% of households with school-aged children, but in all cases, CA charter law is used to force the hand of district Trustees. That’s huge leverage. That’s tyranny of a tiny minority.

If a district board denies a charter application, the applicants can appeal to the County Board of Education, and unlike the locally elected District Board, a County Board of Education is prohibited by law from considering what impact the proposed charter would have on the remainder of the district’s students.

In other words, upon a district’s denial of a charter application and its appeal to a County Board, the petition evaluation methodology is completely different. By law, County Boards need not, and cannot, balance and defend the rights and priorities of the entire district community, as an elected district Board quite obviously must.

County Boards may ONLY consider the merits of the charter application in light of the students to be enrolled in the charter, so a tiny minority can put their own interests ahead of everyone else in their district by simply appealing a charter denial to their county Board.

In this way, California’s charter law is used to deny equal protection to the majority of public school students in district schools after a charter group secedes. Charter law is being deployed by county Boards of Education to strip control of school districts from democratically elected local Trustees, overriding the majority will of district voters to serve the demands of a few.

That’s just wrong.


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