School Boards and the Media


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

I’ve argued before, against federalism cops and state-level ed reformers alike, that the biggest monkey wrench in the government school system is the local school board. The union demands that do the biggest damage to children – the uniform, performance-blind pay scale and the extraordinary obstacles to firing bad teachers – are enforced at that level. And while higher levels of government set the broad budget outlines, it’s the school boards that manage the budgets at the detail level – making them the primary people to blame for the tremendous wastefulness and zero accountability of the system.

And (as I argued to the federalism cops) that’s what we should expect, because local power is structurally more susceptible to these problems than state or federal power. If you run a scam at a high level, the scam is big and that means the suckers (that’s you and me) are more likely to 1) notice and 2) be willing to pay the price to stop it. But if, like the unions, you have your tentacles in thousands of tiny little school districts across the country, you can steal a little here and a little there and end up with a much bigger pile of swag, all while flying under the radar.

Well, yesterday Mark Steyn posted on NRO’s Corner about his experience serving on a school board subcommittee. Two stories he told got me thinking about a new aspect of the school board problem.

Story #1:

After one somewhat difficult meeting, I got back to find a telephone message from the reporter at the local paper: “Hi, Mark. I couldn’t make School Board but I have to file my story this evening. Did anything happen that I need to know about?”

Happily, no. And her non-attendance proved no obstacle to filing a bland happy-face report on the event.

Story #2 (the subcommittee was negotiating with a nearby town to build a joint high school):

On another occasion, I absentmindedly forgot it was a public meeting and launched a blistering attack on a neighboring town. As the evening ended, the nice lady reporter said to me, “Don’t worry, Mark. I won’t put any of those controversial things you said in the paper.”

School boards get a free ride from the relevant media. The broadcast media don’t have time to cover them – they’re too busy with more important stories, like whoever is the new Brangelina this week. And the local papers are at best too lazy to do their jobs (note that in Story #1 it was a “difficult meeting” about which the reporter filed a “bland happy-face report”) and at worst too cozy with the board members – who are, after all, the reporters’ neighbors and pillars of their communities – to report a big story even when it bites them right in their assignments.

4 Responses to School Boards and the Media

  1. Milton Friedman related the decline in overall US school system performance to aggregation of school districts. Empirically, costs rise and performance (as measured by NAEP Reading and Math scores) falls as districts increase in size.

    • Greg Forster says:

      Very true. I remember his pointing this out on several occasions. And there has been some statistical analysis to back it up – Jay and Marcus did one of those studies.

      But I don’t think that invalidates my point here, either. I’m not saying the solution is to get rid of local school boards, or to make them less local by consolidating them. Rather, as I outlined in a post linked above (click on the words “federalism cops”), my preferred solution is to do more to bring other pressures to bear on school boards to try to counteract their worse tendencies.

      Overall, I want more and smaller school districts, but I also want each school district to be subject to more influence from state and, yes, federal sources. That way you get the benefits of facilitating more parental choice (which sustains the efficiencies you cite) while also doing something to counteract the tendency of smaller power centers toward more corruption.

  2. I recommend Jack Hirschliefer, “Anarchy and its Breakdown” (Journal of Political Economy). As districts increase in size, organized interests (unions, publishers, construction contractors) displace parents as decision-makers. Aggregation of resources does nothing to enhance the incentive for the individual parent to lobby a school district, while aggregation of students into large districts will strongly enhance the incentive a textbook publisher, for example) will face to influence the decision by a district bureaucrat to include a textbook on the “approved for use in schools” list. Once you set the precident for Federal intrusion, you invite a contest for control at the Federal level, and parents will lose this contest to the NEA/AFT/AFSCME cartel. The only positive role I see for the Federal government is punitive: anti-corruption investigations.

    I make one exception to my opposition to a Federal role in the Education industry. The Executive branch of the Federal government exercises legitimate authority over four K-12 school systems: the DC schools, the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs schools, the US DOD schools (for military dependents overseas), and the US Embassy schools (for dplomatic dependents overseas).

    All the President has to do to inject competition into the US K-12 education industry is…
    1) Require these schools to develop exams for all courses required for graduation.
    2) Require these schools to allow any US citizen to obtain credit by exam.
    3) Require these schools to license independent contractors (Sylvan Learning Centers, the Kumon Institute, the Universty of Phoenix) to administer these exams at a cost to be negotiated between the examinee and the proctoring agency.
    4) Require all US government agencies to recognize diplomas earned through this process.

    Let competition between the Kumon Institute and Sylvan Learning Centers drive the cost of a high school diploma down to the cost of books and of proctoring exams.

    Similarly, the Executive branch operates four post-secondary institutions: The Air Force Academy at Boulder, Colorado, The Merchant Marine Academy at King’s Point, New York, the US Military Academy at West Point, New York, and the Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland. A policy analogous to that outlined above for k-12 education would drive the cost of a college degree down to the cost of books and grading exams.

    • Greg Forster says:

      That’s good analysis on why small school districts are more effective, but I have one cavail about the role of the feds. The “precedent” for federal intrusion was set in the 1960s when federal funding began. Attaching conditions to that funding is the only form of intrusion I’m endorsing. And, as I have said in the past, I don’t think there’s much argument to be had over whether we should attach conditions to funding once it is settled – and it has been for well nigh 50 years – that the funding will indeed go out the door one way or the other. If I thought there were some chance that federal funding could be stopped, the issue would be more complicated. Given that the feds will fund schools one way or the other, it seems to me the only live question is whether we want to throw a bunch of money down the rathole but at least make the schools jump through some hoops we’d like them to jump through in order to get it, or if we’re just going to throw a bunch of money down the rathole period.

      And over those 50 years, the federal policy movement has all been in the right direction. Back in the 1960s, the unions got everything they wanted at the federal level, and reformers got nothing. Since then, the unions have continued to get a lot of what they want, but over time the reformers are getting more each decade. Whereas at the school district level, I don’t see any movement away from union control – although if I’m wrong I’d love to hear about it.

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