School Boards and the Media

March 18, 2009


(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.

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