Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Post mortem on the school board reform legislation

On April 9, the school board reform bill passed through the legislature with virtually no opposition.   Capturing what I believe was the general sentiment of the Anne Arundel delegation to the General Assembly, the Capital reported that the Speaker of the Assembly, Mike Busch, described the bill's passage as "monumental."  Senator Ed DeGrange, in the same Capital story, summed it up differently but to the same effect: "We won't have to talk about [school board reform] for another 20 years."  


Clearly, the Anne Arundel delegation believed this  school board bill was one of the legislature’s most important accomplishments during the session.  But what amazes me is that there was virtually no public forum to debate it in the legislature or in the newspapers.   Yes, there had been substantial public debate over the years about the merits of elected and appointed school boards.  But for this particular proposal, which, I believe, is a radical departure from the various systems used to select school boards in any of the more than 14,000 other school boards in the United States, there was virtually no public deliberation.  It is true that the Capital  gave it tremendous coverage--perhaps more coverage than anything else the legislature did this session--but it was overwhelmingly horse race coverage (the odds of the bill making it through the legislature), not substantive coverage (the pros and cons of the legislation).


Going into the home stretch, many bills often get their most intense public scrutiny.  But that was not the pattern here. The strategy of the bill's supporters was very simple and effective.  The message was this bill is a "done deal" and it has overwhelming support, so "don't bother me with the details."   When Alan Friedman, Director of Governmental Relations for County Executive Leopold, made the appeal for passage of the amended bill at the sponsor-only public hearing for SB324, he kept his message correspondingly simple and,in a mere sentence or two, told the assembled delegates of the overwhelming support for the bill.  That was all they needed to hear before giving it the go ahead.


My guess is that it will not take long for the public to understand the radical nature of the school board reform the General Assembly has passed but that it will take at least ten years and perhaps as many as twenty for the public to develop a consensus about the reform's effects.  My own prediction is that in its early years the new system will work pretty well.  The press will give it close scrutiny, and its backers will be on their best behavior.  However, over time, the selection process will increasingly become dominated by backroom politics and lose democratic legitimacy in the eyes of the public. 


At the end of the day, the bill's passage can best be explained by the fact that the status quo system of selecting school board members had virtually no defenders, so the debate boiled down to what reform could get enough votes for passage.   The effort focused on getting the votes, not carefully thinking through all the implications of what was being proposed. 


Perhaps my biggest surprise was the leadership's visceral attack on the position of the student member of the board at the 11th hour--literally moments before the final House vote for the bill--and with no publicly stated explanation, let alone public debate about this major change.    (For a discussion of the policy merits of this amendment, see my last post and the letter to the Anne Arundel Delegation from the previous two student members of the board.)   When, shortly before Senate passage of the amended bill,  I asked the leadership to explain its momentous break with past precedent, all I got by way of an explanation was a scornful look saying "give me a break" and the verbal observation that no one in the delegation had objected to the change.    In other words, the reasons for it were self-evident.    


Of course, there were other provisions in this bill that were similarly  considered "self-evident" and that  in coming years, I can pretty safely predict, will be considered controversial  decisions.  That's hardly an unusual prediction when it comes to the after effects of the me-too frenzy that often accompanies the passage of legislation.  Only time will tell whether I'm right or wrong.


Now, barring an unexpected development, I intend this to be my last post on school board reform.  My guess is that when the Nominating Commission is constituted there will be unexpected problems and it may, of necessity, assume unexpected powers to help solve them.  At that point, I might wade into these waters once again.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

In last minute decision, House amends school board reform bill to undercut position of student member of the board; hearing on amended bill set for 1pm tomorrow

In the last few weeks, legislation on school board reform moved quickly. On Thursday, March 22, the Senate approved SB324 and the House held a public hearing on HB1114. On Saturday, March 24, an amendment to the House bill was introduced, and then on Monday, March 26, an amendment to that amendment was introduced, followed immediately by a vote and passage of the bill.

The big surprise was the House amendments to HB1114, including the amendment of the amendment. The two major changes in the first amendment were the addition of a ninth member to the school board (the current school board has eight members) and increased compensation for all school board members. The major change in the amendment to the initial amendment was that the student school board member would not receive compensation and thus henceforth be treated differently from all the other school board members. All the amendments were to be effective beginning with the school board taking office in 2008 (the next school board takes office July 1, 2007).

The two major changes contained in the first amendment were, in my opinion, excellent. I give Andy Lang a lot of credit for the first one, as he pointed out to the delegation the unexpected problems associated with retaining an eight member board with the proposed new school board selection system.

The second amendment to give school board members compensation ($12,000 for regular board members; $14,000 for the board president) should also, in my opinion, be applauded. In many spheres of life we accept the maxim that you get what you pay for. Only a small fraction of people have been willing to apply that maxim to school boards, especially so in Anne Arundel County where the Capital reports that of the 24 counties in Maryland only three, including Anne Arundel, don’t pay school board members a salary.

What are the consequences of asking school board members to devote a huge amount of time to school board affairs and then not paying them? Obviously, the effects are hard to pin down, partly because no rational school board member would ever admit that compensation rather than love of kids might influence his or her behavior. Still, there are a few things that can be said. One is that not paying school board members restricts the type of person who can serve on a school board. The democratic vision of school board members is that they would be lay people broadly representative of the public. But if lower income working people are prevented from serving on such a board, the result is a highly skewed pool of individuals from which school board members can be drawn.

A second likelihood is that school members who aren’t paid will tend to be lazier. Consider the school board’s judicial function as a court of last appeal for student/parent grievances. Many members of the public don’t know that this is a major and very time consuming function of the board. School board members may have to rule on as many as five student/parent grievances a month. They are given this power because there is no other entity in the school system with the same democratic legitimacy that allows it to act as a court of last resort. The public doesn’t know about these grievances because they are heard in private, school board members cannot talk about them in public, and the press therefore doesn’t cover them. In any other sphere of activity, how would you predict someone would behave faced with such incentives? Quite possibly, school board members behave that way, too.

The amendment to the amendment both reduced the compensation of school board members (from $12,000 to $6,000 for regular board members and from $14,000 to $8,000 for the board president). Most important, it excluded the student member of the board from receiving compensation. Although at first glance this might appear to be a minor and very reasonable amendment, it represents a huge policy change that sends a very strong message that the student member of the board is a second class member.

Until now, Anne Arundel County has stood out for having a student member of the board that was a full and equal voting member of the board of education. Now, without any public notice, discussion, or explanation, the House has created legislation to radically undercut this principle of equality. Since, as I have said, there was no public deliberation on the merits of creating this inequality, one can only surmise the reasons of those who pushed this amendment at the last moment.

One possibility is that the advocates of the amendment dislike the position of student member of the board and wanted to undercut it. But the most obvious explanation is the presumption that student members of the board don’t really need the money. This, of course, is an indirect way of saying that student members should be second class board members. But, taking this argument at face value, it is still of dubious merit. Indeed, one could argue that if anyone needs compensation, it’s the students. Most adults, for example, already have cars, so attending the countless school board meetings has a relatively small marginal transportation cost—just gas. In contrast, most students don’t already have their own car and cannot afford one. A student without a car and without compensation to purchase one would be unlikely to run for student member of the board, resulting in a highly skewed set of students who would run for student member of the board. Alternatively, a student member of the board could rely on parents to drive him or her to meetings, but this would be highly demeaning to the student (and position of student member of the board) even if the student belonged to one of the few lower income families with a non-working parent who could devote a large fraction of his or her time to chaperoning their child.

Why is a stay-at-home mom, retired worker, or wealthy professional more deserving of compensation than a student member of the board? I think the answer is by no means self-evident. Another theory might be that it costs more to become an adult board member than a student member of the board. But this overlooks the fact that many student members of the board have in fact devoted far more effort to achieving a leadership position than the adults who are appointed to the board. Some student members have spent four or five years gradually moving up the school government hierarchy to be considered a credible student member of the board. Many adult members, in contrast, have been appointed with only a small fraction of that upfront investment.

If the argument is that student members of the board are too young to use money responsibly, why not provide the money in the form of a college scholarship? A second benefit of the scholarship approach (or any type of compensation for serving on the school board) is that some student members of the board must work –as well as attend school like a regular student--in order to be able to attend college. Making such students sacrifice their chances of attending a good college as the price to serve on the school board doesn’t seem desirable to me.

Regardless of whether you think these amendments were good or bad, they certainly belie the widely promoted notion that the provisions in this bill were for years carefully debated and subject to public scrutiny. The Capital got it right when it observed: “the amendment came at the 11th hour, when there wasn’t much opportunity for public debate. Until that point, the issue was fixing a faulty system that occasionally puts people on the board who haven’t been vetted by a nominating convention.”

If the legislature had a rule that bills had to be available to the public for 72 hours before they were voted on, I wouldn’t have as much cause to complain about the process. What we know from abundant experience with legislatures is that legislation introduced and passed at the last minute tends to be full of both special interest and ill-considered provisions. Similarly, there was no good reason to rush through this legislation at the last second. There is an organization in DC called ReadtheBill.org devoted to just making sure that such bills cannot be rammed through the legislature at the last minute.

For those of you who have concerns about the amendments, all is not lost. Yes, passage of the basic school board reform package, even with all its warts (now partially cleaned up), is a foregone conclusion. But the House and Senate bills are now different and thus must be reconciled in conference committee or via another “public” hearing. If you’re upset that the amendment radically undercutting the position of the student member of the board was sprung on the public only a matter of minutes before bill passage (at least the first set of amendments was public for about 48 hours), you have at least one more chance to voice your concern.

If the bill is going to be changed in conference committee, you can let the conferees know of your concerns. You could, for example, ask them to withdraw the amendment so that there is time for public deliberation before undertaking such a radical measure.

However, the current thinking appears to be that the differences between the two bills are too trivial to deal with in conference committee. Thus, there is expected to be another sponsor only public hearing in the House and Senate to pass a bill agreeable to both chambers. The House hearing is scheduled for tomorrow, April 4, in the House Ways and Means Committee Room at 1pm. Although you cannot speak there, you can still submit formal written testimony (as long as it is submitted by noon) and catch the attention of your local delegate. Although, too, the hearing is being held in the House, the version of the bill that is listed for review is SB324, with the chair of the Senate Anne Arundel Delegation listed as the sponsor. Things are likely to move very quickly after that hearing as they did after the last hearing, so time is of the essence. It may yet be that the chair of the House Ways and Means Committee (Sheila E. Hixson) or the Chair of the Senate Education Health and Environmental Affairs Committee will create a conference committee and appoint conferees. But, as of now, that appears unlikely. Since the Chair of the Senate Anne Arundel Delegation is John Astle, it would appear that he would be the best person to contact between now and 1pm tomorrow. But I’m told that he might appoint someone else to speak and that this change might happen at the last minute.

To conclude on a more general note, the policy logic that has driven this bill is that the current school board selection system is awful. Therefore, any proposal to change it is an improvement, even if the change isn’t optimal. I’m not inclined to defend the school board nominating convention, except to say that awful as it is, I’m doubtful that the bill as passed is a significant improvement (this paraphrases Winston Churchill’s famous quip that democracy is an awful system of government, except for all the alternatives.)

The politics of the bill are actually quite brilliant. It builds on the great discontent with the status quo—discontent that is likely to significantly increase in the next 18 months as the public comes to understand the implications of the school system’s structural deficit for FY2008-9. People would then most likely look to this new system, which will be implemented when the current system is in most disrepute, as the savior to get us out of the mess.

But the bottom line is that this bill from A to Z undercuts the culture of citizenship and parental involvement that is important for the long-term health of a functioning democracy and our school system in particular. It’s already incredibly difficult for parents to have an impact on school system policy. The last thing we need to do is send yet another message that “the public is not wanted.” Of course, that is not how this bill has been framed for public consumption. But, as a political scientist and parent, that’s how I read it. I’m reminded of how Caesar came to power in Rome and destroyed the Republic. This change was not done in the name of elite control. It was done in the name of strengthening Republican institutions. Admittedly, we’re not talking about abolishing democracy here. But democracy comes in many degrees; it’s not an all-or-nothing proposition. And the democratic enhancing features of this bill have clearly been oversold.

Other than leveraging the discrepancies between the House and Senate bills is there anything else that can be done at this point? I would suggest focusing on the ill-defined “public hearings” responsibilities of the new school board nominating commission. The tendency in this county has been to hold “public hearings” merely because they provide democratic legitimacy and therefore political cover for policy makers. The trick has too often been to convey the appearance of democratic legitimacy while, to the extent possible, actually disenfranchising the public so the backroom deals and insider players are not in fact constrained. The way the nominating commission is currently set up, I’d expect that political logic, especially after things settle down, to become the routine way of doing business. But it need not be. The public could insist that the commission hold “real” public meetings. For example, they could be televised and with open public participation. Members of the Commission could be subject to strict conflict of interest disclosure. And the backroom procedures of the Commission could be made as transparent as possible. Hopefully, too, members of the press could be encouraged to look at the credentials of the commissioners with the same rigor that we would expect them to cover the school board candidates themselves.