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.

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