Thursday, March 22, 2007

Report on today's House Ways and Means Committee hearing on HB1114

This afternoon I attended the House Ways and Means Committee hearing on HB1114, the bill to change Anne Arundel County’s system of appointing school board members. The event was labeled a “hearing” on the Maryland General Assembly website and on the agenda distributed at the event. But for those of you familiar with local hearings, it was a most peculiar hearing because no live public testimony was accepted and only the sponsor of the legislation was given the opportunity to testify. (We can only hope that the vaguely specified requirement in HB1114 that the Nominating Commission “shall hold at least two public hearings on the selection of nominees” is not similarly such a sham.)

The hearing was supposed to begin at 1pm but due to a delay in another meeting didn’t actually convene until 1:45pm. About half the delegate seats in the committee room were vacant. I was very lucky because HB1114 was the first bill on the agenda, which included 20 bills. Delegate Love, the lead sponsor of the bill and head of the Anne Arundel County delegation, was the only witness to speak. She started with the potent symbolism of noting that Alan Friedman, Director of Governmental Relations for County Executive Leopold, was sitting next to her. Friedman himself said nothing; his role was purely symbolic.

The testimony lasted all of about five minutes. Delegate Love summarized the bill by essentially paraphrasing its contents. That took maybe three minutes. Then there was one question from the Committee. A delegate wanted to know why the Maryland Senate last year rejected a very similar bill. Delegate Love replied that “the Senate passed it out earlier today, so we’re in a lovefest, no pun intended.” That was it. Delegate Love and Alan Friedman got up and left the room, and the Committee went on to attend other business.

There were only two statements submitted into the record for this hearing: my statement mostly opposing HB1114, and a one page statement from AFSCME 67 (the section of AFSCME representing several thousand non-professional school employees in AACPS) giving HB1114 a ringing endorsement. Unfortunately, AFSCME 67 did not post its statement on its website (at least when I last checked around 10:30 pm today), so I cannot provide a link to it. Basically, in a few paragraphs, it endorses HB1114 for creating an elected school board and empowering the public.

In addition, Alan Lang, the former chair of the School Board Nominating Convention, sent out a written statement criticizing HB1114 to the entire County delegation. His comments are elegant and very substantial (far more substantial than mine). Indeed, in their meticulous attention to the subtleties and implications of seemingly innocuous clauses, I would call them brilliant. If you are interested in discovering why this is a carelessly drafted bill (good for a first draft; lousy for a final draft), you need to read Alan’s comments.

It is, of course, hardly unusual to have poorly drafted legislation filled with ambiguities, inconsistencies, and vital omissions. For example, a primary role of federal agencies is to take such language drafted by Congress and through the rulemaking process develop workable regulations. The problem here is that there is no such agency. Presumably, the Nominating Commission would be forced to deal with many of the problems Alan has identified. But giving the Nominating Commission such dramatically enhanced powers is certainly an unintended consequence of the way this bill is drafted. This is work that legislators should take on themselves, or, at the very least, explicitly delegate to others.

On the whole, the hearing was pretty sad for me. According to standard legislative norms, major pieces of legislation—and this is major—should be subject to public deliberation. All the real deliberation on this bill, however, has been conducted behind closed doors. And, as reflected in Alan’s keen observations, I have yet to be convinced that even that deliberation reflected a careful consideration of the policy issues as opposed to an astute political calculation that this fresh approach to school board reform could break the political logjam, which it has.

This bill is being sold as a bipartisan done deal with no significant controversy attached to it. Delegate Love’s characterization that the bill was being treated like a “lovefest” was right on the money. But, in my experience, the momentum behind such bills, even when it seems unstoppable, can quickly change. All that needs to happen is that a credible grassroots effort raises some valid concerns and wins an outspoken and credible supporter within the political elites. Then the aura of inevitability can quickly dissipate. If you have any concerns about provisions in HB1114, this is the time to contact your delegate and let him or her know. If you wait until after the vote has already taken place, it will be too late.

My written statement for the hearing today before the Maryland House Ways and Means Committee on HB1114

My written statement for the hearing today before the Maryland House Ways and Means Committee on HB1114, the proposed reform of the school board selection process in Anne Arundel County.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

On Thursday (tomorrow) the House Ways and Means Committee will hold a public hearing on HB1114, the bill to reform the school board appointment process

On Thursday, March 22, the Maryland House of Delegates will be holding a hearing on HB1114, a bill proposing to change the school board selection process in Anne Arundel County, in Room 130 (the House Ways and Means Committee Room) of the Lowe House Office Building.  I encourage anyone with concerns about the provisions in this bill to both attend the hearing and submit written testimony for the public record.  Unfortunately, the Committee will not accept any live public testimony on this bill.  To submit written testimony for the public record, you must submit it in person in Room 131 of the Lowe House Office Building at least one hour before the hearing begins (that is, by noon on March 22). You should submit 35 copies.  The legislative session adjourns on April 9, 2007 (less than three weeks from today) and some version of this bill is widely expected to pass before it does so.  This may be your last and best chance to have your voice heard on this vital issue concerning the future of our public school system.




Sunday, March 18, 2007

Power Politics: Who Gains and Who Loses Under the School Board Reform Legislation?

With the support of Anne Arundel County's House and Senate leadership, County Executive, and local newspapers, passage of the legislature's school board reform bill has taken on an aura of inevitability.  Yes, before passage there may be some tinkering with the specific bill language.  But the consensus among political insiders is that the bill will pass and retain its signature features.
The question I want to address here is: "who gains and who loses with passage of this bill?"  Specifically, who gets more control over the school system's approximately $1 billion budget, 10,000 jobs, and 75,000 students?  This is a huge political plum; the only larger employer in the County may be Maryland's state government, control over which must be shared with close to 150 state legislators.
I think the clear political winner here is Anne Arundel County's legislators.  Currently, they are a bit player in the school board selection process.   That will change with the new selection process.  The governor has control over five of the eleven appointees to the School Board Nominating Commission.  But those appointees are to be selected from each of the five legislator districts within the County.  The Governor will be expected to consult with the local delegations and reward his legislative supporters with selection of a Nominating Commission member. 
The other major political winners are the private organizations, including representatives from the teachers, principals, Community College, PTAs, and Chamber of Commerce.    These groups are already major power players but now they will be given a formal seat at the table and a greater veto power over the choice of school board members. 
The situation of the county executive is a bit more ambiguous.   By getting one seat at the table, his formal power over the nominating process is substantially increased.  Until now, a county executive had no formal power over the nominating process and usually exercised minimal informal powers.  A county executive  with close personal relationships with Maryland legislators and knowledge of the legislative process (such as Anne Arundel's current county executive) will gain even more from this new process.  That power, however, is informal and will heavily depend on the particular county executive in power. 
The county executive's power over the governor's final selection process will probably stay about the same or slightly decrease.  County executives, especially those that support the governor, have traditionally had substantial informal power over the governor's final selection of school board member.  School board appointments are much more important to the county executive than governor, so it's a nice perk the governor can give to a supportive county executive.  The governor will most likely continue to do this under the new process, but both the governor and county executive will lose the power of selecting someone who wasn't vetted through a nominating entity such as the proposed Nominating Commission or the previous Nominating Convention.  However, with the governor in control of five of the eleven Nominating Commission members plus the chair of the Nominating Commission, this hardly would appear to be a significant loss of power.
So who will lose?  I think the most obvious losers are the CACs and activist parents who have traditionally dominated the School Board Nominating Convention.  The position of the CACs may seem a bit paradoxical because they are not allowed to send representatives to the School Board Nominating Convention or take any official actions supporting or opposing particular parents.  However, the type of activist, policy oriented parent involved in the CACs has historically been most likely to participate in the School Board Nominating Convention.    Their experience on the CACs have made them better Convention delegates.  Equally important, the CACs have been strengthened by the Nominating Convention.  Potential school board candidates often rise through the CACs, developing important relationships and policy insights helpful in a run for the school board.  The positive consequence is a significant and very healthy motivation for citizens to devote themselves to the important work of the CACs.  Many school board members, including Paul Rudolph and Michael Leahy, once led or were active in their local and/or countywide CACs. The latest example is Sam Georgiou, a former County CAC Chair and current school board candidate. 
Activist parents may, of course, lobby the governor, county executive, and representatives in the legislature for favored school board candidates.  But the result is a far more circuitous and less likely effective route to influence.  Whereas now activist parents can directly vote for candidates through the Nominating Convention, now they would be two steps removed from the selection of school board nominees because their influence would have to be filtered through both their elected representative and the person that representative appointed to select the school board nominees.
Why is this analysis helpful?  I think it sheds a lot of light on the sense of political inevitability associated with this bill.  The people who are voting on this bill can significantly enhance their own power and that of the key education power brokers by supporting its passage.   That is, it's a win-win for the key decision makers. 
Note that this analysis has nothing to do with the policy merits of the bill.   It's purely an analysis of the underlying power politics that help explain the bill's political momentum.  It's quite possible that the power politics and policy merits driving a particular bill are one and the same.  That, of course, would be democracy at its best.   You should decide for yourselves whether, in this particular case, there is such a compatibility.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Critique of the Washington Post's "spin" on the school board reform bill

Yesterday the Washington Post ran a news report on the school board reform passed by our Maryland Senate delegation and currently being considered by our House delegation. The headline reads: “School Board Bill: No Election, but more Say for the Public.” In case anybody didn’t get the message, the opening paragraph explains: “the measure would give the public more control over who is selected and how long they serve.”

The rest of the article, rather surprisingly, doesn’t provide a whit of evidence to back up the assertion in the title and in the opening paragraph. We learn about the politics of the bill—the recent Senate vote and the major players for and against it. But as to why it is so democratic, we can only infer that it is because under the present system the governor has the discretion not to pick one of the two nominees recommended by the School Board Nominating Convention.

So let me get this right. The Governor is a democratically elected official. Five of the eleven members of the proposed Nominating Commission are self-selected, unelected representatives of private organizations. In theory, the other six are appointed by elected officials (five from the Governor). But we know from experience with this type of Commission that there is great political pressure to act by consensus (usually, there is no political payoff in making a controversial decision), so the other five will, as a practical matter, have veto power. Thus, we are going to give this unelected body binding election authority while taking it away from an elected governor, and we are going to call this giving the public more control over who is elected.

At the same time, we are going to substitute approval voting for competitive elections/appointments. As I’ve explained elsewhere, approval voting is generally considered to be far less democratic than competitive elections. It is sometimes used with judicial appointments, but the reference point there is often lifetime appointment (e.g., appointment to the Supreme Court). As a practical matter, those elected by approval voting are rarely defeated, so the de facto term of a school board member would increase from five to ten years.

But the problems with approval voting go beyond that. School board members will learn that the only way they can be defeated after their first term is by doing something controversial. Thus, a rational school board member will do even more than presently to avoid controversy. But how does a successful drive get established to recall a school board member? Generally, only a narrow interest group has the motivation and means to pull off one of these recall elections. Thomas Wolfe, in the Bonfire of the Vanities, describes one of these recall elections but for a sitting judge. In Wolfe’s book, it is the best judge on the bench who makes a tough call and alienates a key group who gets the hook. And since, in the real world of politics (not the make believe world that typically is reported in local newspapers), you don’t go after someone for the real reason, you find the opponent’s weak point and then launch a campaign of slander. Alternatively, consider the ballot initiatives in California. They appear to be democratic, but in fact it is so difficult to get an item on the ballot and then win a majority vote that special interests overwhelmingly dominate the process.

In short, I don’t buy the argument that the school board reform bill likely to pass in this legislature gives the public more say. Whether or not you buy it, I hope you will agree that it is at least a controversial assertion that deserves public debate. This reporter, by giving us all spin and no argument, has failed in providing that debate.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Maryland Senate Passes Radical School Board Reform Measure

On Thursday, March 8, the Anne Arundel County delegation to the Maryland Senate passed, by a 3-2 vote, a bill incorporating the “judicial election” model of school board reform. The rest of the Senate, taking its cue from the County delegation, is expected to pass the legislation. The future success of the legislation now primarily depends on the House of Delegates.

I do not want to use this commentary to critique this legislation. I have done that elsewhere. My purpose here is to critique two claims made by the bill’s supporters and echoed in the press.

1) The Non-Radical Claim
The first claim is that the “judicial election” model is not a radical departure from past precedent and is somehow a compromise position in a policy rather than a political sense. For example, the Capital in its news story on Senate passage of the bill asserts that the proposal “seeks a middle ground between gubernatorial appointments and a fully-elected board.” This framing may have some political logic but is absurd from a policy standpoint. Consider the following points:

• There is not a single school or county council district in Maryland that uses this electoral method. To the best of my knowledge, it is similarly rare for school and municipal elections at a national level.

• By moving from a system of competitive elections to approval voting, the proposal extends the de facto term of a school board member from five to ten years. In theory, a school board member could be turned out in five years. But in practice, we know from approval voting in judicial elections that this is much less likely than if there is any type of competitive election (school board nominating conventions included). In other words, this proposal creates arguably the longest school board term of office in any of the more than 14,000 school districts in the U.S. If competitiveness of elections and likely duration of office is a measure of democratic accountability, then this electoral system would be arguably the least democratically accountable in the U.S.

• By moving from local to statewide selection of five of the eleven School Board Nominating Commission members, having another five of the eleven members selected by unelected representatives of private organizations, and having the chair of the Commission selected by a statewide office holder, the proposed electoral system moves radically away from the democratic principles of localism, political equality, and citizen sovereignty.

• By granting the School Board Nominating Commission huge powers over close to a $1 billion budget, 10,000 jobs, and 75,000 students, while making it democratically unaccountable to an unprecedented degree for a school board, it invites even more backroom politics than customarily seen in either appointed or electoral systems.

Having said the above, I don’t in any way want to imply that I’m against radical experiments in electoral design. In my view, America’s electoral systems are as antiquated as the horse and buggy transportation system that was dominant when they were originally conceived. But I am against radical innovations presented as modest compromises.

2) The Careful Deliberation Claim
The second claim I find disturbing is that the Anne Arundel County delegation and the public more generally has had a thorough discussion of the issues, so it’s time for a decision to be made. In the Capital’s formulation endorsing the Senate legislation: “this issue has already been debated far too long.”

It is true that the general issue of school board reform has been debated for a very long time and that no decision has been made. But it is not true that this particular electoral reform has been long debated. And it is even less true that this issue has been fully and thoughtfully debated in public. My guess is that less than one in fifty citizens of Anne Arundel County really understands the key provisions of this bill, let alone their implications (e.g., the de facto extension of school board terms and the shift in power from local to state decision makers and from public to private decision makers).

Even the public discussion of an elected school board, despite having taken place over many years, has been an intellectual embarrassment, revealing a parochialism and lack of sophistication that would be astounding if it wasn’t what we have come to so frequently expect from our political elites, including the press, on which we are so dependent for our information. No one should assume that the endless repetition of common sense sound bites is necessarily the result of careful reflection and good judgment.

To take just one example, it is often assumed that the natural state of affairs for any elected official, including a school board member, is to have authority to raise taxes. But this is a misleading assumption. The American system of government is based on checks and balances. Usually, only one of the three branches of government is granted taxing authority (e.g., it is considered desirable to separate administrative from taxing powers). Even elected legislative bodies often don’t have taxing authority, as is witnessed by the profusion of elected planning, library, and other local boards throughout the United States (in Anne Arundel County, these types of boards are appointed rather than elected). And even when legislative bodies are granted some taxing authority, it is often incomplete, requiring either the approval of another body (e.g., a school board may need approval of a proposed tax increase from a town council) or the approval of the taxpayers (e.g., tax increases may only be passed via referendum).

In sum, the proposal on the table is both radical in conception and has been rushed to a vote with minimal public deliberation. That doesn’t necessarily entail that the proposal is a bad idea. But it should give all of us—public, press, and politicians—pause. For the House of Delegates to now follow the Senate’s example and act without a full and public debate would be rash and should not be applauded.

Saturday, March 3, 2007

Recent letters-to-the-editor

Letters to the Editor: Maryland Gazette, March 3, 2007, p. A8

School board
It seems that County Executive John Leopold and some of our state delegates have no confidence in the ability of their constituents. It seems that the citizens, after waiting for decades for a better process, may be getting a selected school board instead of an elected school board. More than 90 percent of the school boards in the United States are elected. Proposing a selected school board is an insult to the intelligence of the citizens of this great county.


Your say: Which school board system do you prefer, elected or appointed? The Maryland Gazette, March 3, 2007, p. A8

To me, it has always defied any democratic principle why Anne Arundel County citizens allow the voters of Montgomery, Prince George's and the city of Baltimore to essentially pick their Board of Education members, and superintendent as well for that matter. Why then would the good citizens have any reasonable expectation of accountability from an organization they have no say in how it is composed? Local residents are expected to financially support the county educational system through taxes and fees, but have zero say in the ultimate determination of who is responsible for their children and young adults education. Absolutely no member of the Anne Arundel County public school system is selected, appointed or anointed by anyone elected solely by the voters of Anne Arundel County. This goes against all concepts of a democratic society and is absolutely wrong.

--DAVE DYKE Pasadena

(County Executive John) Leopold's plan (to create a commission that would name candidates for the governor's choice) is much more preferred. All one has to do is look at the unhappy staff working under the superintendant chosen by and elected board in Montgomery County.


I believe an elected school board has merit. I would like to learn more about the referendum (proposed by state Sen. Bryan Simonaire) and read the details of how that would be implemented, such as length of terms, candidate requirements, etc. Having an elected school board versus an appointed board would help to isolate the board from political influences and pressures and open the positions to a more favorable forum for selection.

--BEN WINSTEAD Glen Burnie

I don't see anything wrong with the people submitting names for the job, but the final says has to be in the hands of the governor. This way it makes someone accountable for their actions. All one has to do is look at the shame our elected officials are pulling in Annapolis. At the next election they will all say they didn't want to raise taxes. It was the other guy. When will the people of this state understand a one party system doesn't help anyone but the people in power.


I am in favor of Bryan Simonaire's idea to have an elected school board. I feel that it is important to let the people have their say, and have elected officials, rather than appointed members.

--LISA DUNHAM Glen Burnie

Why on earth should the governor be appointing local school board members? Does the president appoint the school board members of Washington, D.C.? Whether they're chosen from a list of suggestions, (as now) or from a list with no alternatives, (as Mr. Leopold supports) the governor has no business in such local affairs. School board members must be accountable to the families and taxpayers they serve. Elections of board members along county district lines is the best way to ensure their full accountability to all the people of Anne Arundel county, and not just the Severna Park elite. Bring on that referendum.


Letters to the Editor: The Capital, February 28, 2007, p. A10

School board
It seems that County Executive John Leopold and some of our state delegates have no confidence in the ability of their constituents. It seems that the citizens, after waiting for decades for a better process, may be getting a selected school board instead of an elected school board. More than 90 percent of the school boards in the United States are elected. Proposing a selected school board is an insult to the intelligence of the citizens of this great county.