Monday, March 7, 2016

Fordham Institute: Democracy is Overrated

Democracy? We don't need no
 stinkin' democracy!
Writing in the Thomas B. Fordham Institute's Ohio Gadfly Online, Aaron Churchill says that we shouldn't worry so much about whether school boards are elected, as in most public schools, or appointed, as in most charter schools, because democracy doesn't really work so well in education.

Churchill's key argument is that not many voters show up for school board elections because voters are not well-motivated for these off- cycle, low-profile elections; so who really cares if the school board members are elected or appointed by some charter operator. The problem is, according to Churchill, that these low-turnout elections leave the field open to "special interest groups" to unduly influence elections. By special interest groups, Churchill means teacher unions. Apparently, he cannot think of any other special interest groups that might want to influence a school board election.

To support his thesis, Churchill cites the work of Terry Moe, the William Bennett Monroe professor of political science at Stanford. This sounds really impressive until you google Professor Moe and find out that he is also a member of the Hoover Institute's Koret Task Force on K-12 Education. The Hoover Institute is a conservative think tank that has a long history of anti-unionism. Moe discovered, lo and behold, that teachers tend to vote in school board elections in greater numbers than most non-teaching citizens and they generally vote for people who are friendly to teachers. I think we all could have saved Professor Moe some time and just stipulated that, "Yeah, we knew that already."

Churchill apparently believes that the only thing that makes a school board democratic is an election. He fails to acknowledge that once a school board member is elected, said member is required to serve all the citizens of the school district (those who voted for the candidate, those who voted against the candidate, and those who didn't vote at all) and be responsive to their wishes for their schools. Democracy doesn't end at the ballot box. The ballot box is just the beginning of the process. With an elected school board, citizens can attend a monthly meeting, for which they have received an agenda ahead of time and comment on anything on the agenda or any other issue they wish to address. They can organize citizen's groups to request school board action and they can scrutinize every expenditure of the school board.

With charter schools - not so much. Charter school boards are appointed. Members of the board may or may not live within the school district the charter serves. Board members may or may not be responsive to parents or community members. Charter schools from New York to California have fought long and hard to make sure their books cannot be audited by public entities. Charter schools do not have to answer to the people who fund them or to those who send their children to them.

As for "special interest groups" subverting democracy, I must assume that Mr. Churchill is unaware of the 250,000 dollars that Michelle Rhee's, anti-teacher, anti-union group, Student's First has pored into Los Angeles school board elections, but he could start his reading here. And then there are those famous champions of democracy, Eli Broad and Michael Bloomberg, who have given hundreds of thousands to favored school board candidates in LA and Minneapolis. Read about their donations here and here.   And Churchill might also find it interesting to read about the huge amounts of cash a charter favoring PAC dumped into a school board race in Santa Clara County, California. 

With the shocking ascendancy of Donald Trump as a presidential candidate, I am in sympathy with those who worry about the future of democracy. Lame, shallow arguments from charter champions defending the closed door policies of charter schools, however, do not convince me that schools would be better off without democratic processes. Look what overriding democracy has done for the children of Flint, Michigan.