The Threat and Promise of an Elected, Representative School Board

5 11 2012

My friend and much-beloved one-time political consultant Mike Fourcher published an editorial in the Center Square and Roscoe View Journals urging voters to vote against a non-binding advisory referendum on the ballot in many Chicago precincts: whether there should be an elected, representative school board (ESRB).

Mike makes some compelling but ultimately unsatisfying arguments as to why voters should reject this referendum. His arguments, both in the piece and in the comments, are compelling enough to merit a response.

The thrust of the argument against the school board is three-pronged; first, direct elections of technically- or specialty-oriented board are not desirous because of the outsize influence of interested parties; second, more democracy can cut against efficiency; and finally, there is sufficient control over the school board via election of the Mayor.

On its face, the first argument is an odd one, because it seems to be a critique of democracy itself, when considered superficially; of course different interests will compete to influence elections. That’s what elections are. To say, “electing a school board will introduce politics into the process,” is to say nothing at all, because all elections carry this feature. Yet we still recognize the inherent value of giving the people the right to determine who governs and to exert pressure through retention of that power.

I think Mike is making a finer point; school boards are not like City Councils because they have a technocratic, specialist focus. The analogy he draws to election of judges (something I personally oppose) and the Commissioners of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD) suggests the criticism of the ERSB is not just a criticism of democracy but of democracy in the context of specialty governing body: specialty groups, like teachers unions or school privatizers, major CPS contractors etc., have a major interest in influencing the Board incommensurate with public interest in the Board.

There is merit to this argument. We don’t want to elect for example the leadership of the Federal Reserve, we want bankers, or at least people with a high level of expertise in banking, to make those decisions; and perhaps more importantly, we want those people to be insulated from the type of political pressure legislators face so they can make more empirically-based decisions. If the Fed were elected, we can only imagine the truckloads of money bankers and financial interests would pour into races that dealt with issues somewhat opaque to the general public.

However, the reality doesn’t support the analogy, so the criticism breaks down. School boards have historically been elected bodies; mayoral control is a new phenomenon. While they have a specialty area of authority, it is not a technical area like the law or central banking. Nor is it as “specialist” and thus invisible to the public as the MWRD. The Board of Education of Chicago is a high-profile body. The argument that it requires specialists is confounded by the current composition of the Board, and its composition since Mayoral control began in 1995: it has been stacked with bankers, real estate developers, and high-profile corporate executives and devoid of educators. Evidently technical expertise isn’t required, because the non-elected school board hasn’t had very many, if any, education specialists.

Also, unlike the MWRD or the courts, the public schools is a major taxing body (the MWRD is also a taxing body but not nearly at the scale of the CPS, for Chicagoans). The bulk of property taxes levied on Chicagoans go to fund the schools. So even if it were a “technical” or “specialist” body, there is a more compelling, countervailing need for public control because of the immense amounts of money it controls.

The second argument, that more democracy can create inefficiency, is a speculative one that relies on a negative inference (we have a lot of governments, and a lot of corruption). Illinois has more bodies of government than any state, including California and Texas, and yet we aren’t a model of good government. This is a point that James Merriner makes in his book Grafters and Goo-Goos. This isn’t particularly persuasive; one of the reasons there are so many governmental bodies is the existence of townships, particularly in more rural counties, which exist essentially to manage roads (Chicago has no townships).

The more apt level of analysis would be of Chicago itself, and to elected bodies Chicagoans have to deal with. Does Chicago have too many elected bodies? We do not elect at least two local governments that tax us: the public schools and the park district. We also do not elect the leadership of major bodies like the Housing Authority, the Transit Authority, the Regional Transit Authority, the Port of Chicago, and the McPier facilities authority. These agencies are bond-rated and arguably have more impact on our day-to-day lives as Chicagoans than the BOE, particularly housing and transit. Chicagoans don’t deal with a glut of elected bodies, particularly considering the number of bodies that govern them. In other words, whether or not the BOE is elected, it will continue to exist, and to tax us. If that’s the case, then electing or not electing it does nothing to impact the number of governments, it will merely change the operation of one of those governments.

The third argument is a more conceptual one. It’s a fair point to say that the Board is popularly accountable via the person of the Mayor; because he appoints it, it reflects his policies, and so if people are unhappy with its policies they can rebuke it by rebuking him. Although a fair point, I think it also is wanting. The reason for that is the nature of our electoral system.

Before getting to the meat of that objection, there is an initial issue that helps clarify things. Remember that list of local governments that impact us but which we do not elect? The Mayor controls all of them to some degree. What if he does a good job with two of them (say, the Park District and the Transit Authority) but a rotten job with another. How do you direct your formal political power (your vote) to correct this problem?

You can’t. You’ve only got one vote. So if you’re among the million or so voters who ride the CTA every day but have no children in public schools. You may disagree with the operation of the schools, but transit is more dear to you. There is no formal way to express that motivation in the electoral system. Given the current presidential election, this simple point may seem familiar. Many people will hold their nose on President Obama’s various civil liberties abuses because of who he will appoint to the Supreme Court, or to the National Labor Relations Board vis a vis Romney. So you cast your vote despite your reservations. But in those cases, it would be (constitutionally) impossible or impractical to elect either of those bodies. The Supreme Court’s nomination process is defined by Article III of the Constitution, and the NLRB is an intensely specialty body with no independent taxing or legislative authority.

The Board of Education has independent legislative and taxing authority. Theoretically, therefore, the public should be able to exert pressure directly on that body to create policies they want. But practically speaking, that isn’t worthwhile because they are accountable to the Mayor first. So pressure needs to be exerted on the Mayor; but that pressure is inherently diffuse because most voters aren’t one-issue voters; the interested parties (parents, students, and teachers) will, in general elections, be subsumed by the general public. Not only this, but students can’t vote and parents are also users of roads, trains, buses, parks, payers of sales taxes, etc.

Mayoral control in other words insulates the Board from public pressure by diffusing the ability of the public to apply direct pressure to it.

The rationale for insulating the Board from public pressure is a different issue (touched on above, the “specialty” issue); the question here is whether election of the Mayor provides the public sufficient control over the Board. I think the foregoing discussion shows that it doesn’t. A single ballot cast cannot communicate voter concerns with enough particularity; a vote-with-reservations-or-critiques counts the same as a vote-of-categorical-support. The natural recourse would be for the voter to apply direct pressure, but that isn’t effective here because the Board has been deliberately insulated from that pressure.

So, what affirmative arguments are there? I think they’re of a piece with the critiques above; the public should have as much say as is workable over legislative, taxing bodies, with controls for the need of technical expertise and representativeness; democracy is an inherent good; and specific accountability to affected classes cannot be served by Mayoral control and insulation.

The advisory referendum doesn’t say anything about how the Board should be elected, and that speaks to the need for controls. It isn’t necessary that the entire Board be elected, for example–the City Council and Mayor could appoint a portion of it. There could be formal educational requirements (years spent as an educator, Ed.D. degrees, ex officio positions for Aldermen or the Mayor himself. Before Mayoral control, Local School Councils nominated the Board from among its membership via an elected (by them) nomination body. That ensured that parents would be represented and that political campaigning wouldn’t distort the representation process.

There could be geographic residency requirements for Board members, or Local School Council membership requirements. (There couldn’t, as a matter of law, be similar restrictions on voters–you can’t say for example that only property tax payers or parents of children in schools can vote, see Kramer v. Union Free School District). There are any number of ways to ensure that the Board is composed of individuals with technical expertise, insulated from the distorting effects of popular political campaigns.

Ultimately, having an elected school board does not inherently cause the problem of special interest influence. It is a problem that can be solved by negotiating over the character of elected Board. Any number of schemes can sufficiently protect it from overbearing special interests–whether they be charter operators, contractors, or unions. If that objection can still be addressed, the issue turns on whether there is an inherent advantage to, and normative good in, electing a major taxing body with legislative powers.

There are. A taxing body taxes better when subject to the greatest level of popular control; the investing of the “power of the purse” in the House of Representative speaks to this. That’s Federalist Papers stuff. Mayoral control is under-inclusive as a mechanism for public pressure because of the nature of voting itself.

If nothing else, these arguments may be helpful in coming to a conclusion.


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