School Board Democracy

Over at the Education Next Blog, my second blogging home, Peter Meyer has an excellent post about what school board democracy really looks like.

He describes how a gadfly like him could only manage to slip onto the board through a “stealth” campaign.  Normally boards are dominated by those backed by current school district employees or other status quo forces.  Those with the greatest vested interest in the status quo are the most motivated to turn-out during the intentionally inaccessible school board elections scheduled on off-election days.  But the low turn-out also allows a stealth candidate like Peter to get elected every now and then.  Don’t worry, now that he’s no longer stealth it’s very likely that a well-funded and organized challenger will unseat him next time around.

Peter then describes how the school board repeatedly blocked his efforts to open up school district decisions to greater scrutiny and public discussion:

And, after being sworn in, they went out of their way to keep me in the dark.  If the superintendent recommended hiring a new teacher and I asked to see the candidate’s resume, a motion was quickly made that school board did not want to see said resume.  It passed, 6 to 1.  When a special board meeting was called to approve $25 million in construction contracts, I asked to see the contracts.  “I make a motion that the board does not look at the contracts,” said one of my colleagues. “I second that, said another.”  Another defeat, 6 to 1…. My orientation consisted of the board president and superintendent sitting me down and saying, “You’re not getting anything.”

Ahh, democracy in action.

Oddly, Peter’s faith in school board democracy remains unshaken: “There is much debate in policy chambers and think tanks across the country about the value of school boards.  I am here to say we need them. And we need more of them.  They remain a kind of last hope for democracy, where a rogue can actually be elevated to position of authority, bringing a flashlight –- and, sometimes, a pulpit — to the process.”

I emphasize “faith” because it is hard to understand Peter’s commitment to the value of school boards given his experiences without attributing to him a religious-like devotion to it.  In the comments section of his post I objected that his examples support the position that school boards are a dead-end for reformers.  Rather than rely on the phony democracy of low turnout and insider controlled school boards, reformers should rely on markets.  Yes, we need democracy to set the rules for the markets, but that can be done by state legislatures.  We don’t need democratically elected boards to run schools.  Charter schools, for example, do just fine operating in markets without democratically elected boards to run them.

I fear that Peter’s committment to school board democracy despite all evidence that should dissuade him of his view is part of our national secular religion of public school.  It’s actually more like a cult.  We falsely believe that the public school is the foundation of our democracy when in fact our democracy preceded it by more than a century.  We wrongly believe that the public school is the main engine of civic progress when we know that public schools were segregated by law for most of their existence.  We wrongly believe that public schools are best at teaching political tolerance and other civic values, when the evidence shows that private schools actually serve these public goals better

Until we shake this cult-like devotion to public schools, expect more education pundits dancing through the airport singing their hare krishna song about the democratic virtues of public schools.

CLARIFICATION — I din’t mean to suggest that Peter is one of those cult members who worship at the true church of the public school.  I was just suggesting that these ideas pervade our thinking so that even very sharp reformers like Peter are dragged into praising school board democracy.

5 Responses to School Board Democracy

  1. Peter Meyer says:

    If I could snap my fingers and get us Jay’s World, I would — and me and my school board would fade quietly into the sunset. In the meantime, however, we have a few dozen million kids in our public school system and school boards can be their last best hope; one of them, at least. The reform battle is being fought on many fronts and while journalists (like me) rarely make good public servants, for the moment I am a two-fer: a reforter on the inside. That doesn’t prove that school boards are necessary, but, as Jay suggests, since such boards have already been made ineffectual, we already know that the system wouldn’t be any better without them.


  2. Of course, Peter is right that millions of kids remain in schools run by school boards, so we should hope for good people to get on those boards. I just don’t want to praise school boards because I think it’s largely hopeless to fix schools by trying to get a good person on them. I’d rather trash those boards as the shams they usually are and advocate for more fundamental change. Peter is just more practical.

  3. Greg Forster says:

    “School boards are their last best hope?” If that were true, they’d be screwed. But it’s not. It would be more true to say that school boards are the very worst possible place to look for hope.

    Oh, and Jay – since when do you have such a low opinion of religion? Faith is not contrary to reason, but congruent with it!

  4. I tried to clarify that the public school secular religion is more like a cult, which is defined by its being false and potentially dangerous. And faith in a cult has to be contrary to reason since reason should bring us to the truth. I should have left the word religion out of the post to avoid this confusion.

  5. allen says:

    Up until fairly recently, on the national policy timescale, what was there besides the school district in the sphere of tax-funded education?

    There was nothing so if you weren’t a “stand on the side and carp” type like me the only course open to anyone interested in effecting public education was to try to get yourself elected to a school board. Trouble is, the school board is probably the democratic institution that exemplifies the worst aspects of democracy being a useless political excresence, sort of a tax-supported appendix, to start with and going downhill from there.

    [i]Charter schools, for example, do just fine operating in markets without democratically elected boards to run them.[/i]

    Without the support of the self-elected “school board”, the parents who choose to enroll their kids in the charter school, the school would cease to exist. Seems both pretty democratic and pretty effective to me even if the people who hold the fate of the school in their hands haven’t run for elective office.

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