Sunday, November 23, 2008

Electoral Authoritarianism

[My letter-to-the-editor published in the Capital on November 19, 2008]

In its November 6, 2008 editorial interpreting the school board election results, the Capital concluded: “The results will inevitably be read as a thumbs-up for both the school board and the new method for picking its members.” Sure, school board boosters will argue that. But their democratic logic will be deeply flawed. All over the world today we see countries that fraudulently call themselves “democracies” because they have elections. Take Russia and Venezuela. Both have elections and both have elected leaders who won by huge margins. But are they democratic? Are they as popular as the Capital’s logic would suggest?

In addition to self-serving electoral systems, all these regimes have at least one other attribute in common with AACPS: weak civil societies. The only strong civic organization in AACPS politics today is the teachers’ union. The PTA barely even pretends to be anything more than a support organization for AACPS staff. The CACs, which were originally conceived of as a remedy for the PTAs civic shortcomings, have unfortunately become an arm of the AACPS PR apparatus. Is there a way out of this civic nightmare? One small but helpful step would be to dismantle at least part of the AACPS PR apparatus, including the subtle but effective staff gag rules and parental intimidation that now pervade AACPS.

AACPS faces an immense structural deficit. For the last five years it has been rolling in dough, with operating expenditures up 43.3% while student enrollments held steady. It is addicted to huge infusions of new cash, but instead of acknowledging its addiction all we’re getting out of Riva Road is a steady flow of Orwellian Doublespeak. Interpreting the recent school board elections as public satisfaction with the school board is the type of self-serving analysis we should expect out of Riva Road, not the Capital.