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.

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