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.

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