Active public oversight solves the problem of too much delegation

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The teachers unions and school administrators have plenty of incentives to make sure spending is increased on the public school system. Their livelihood and continued economic and political power depends upon their success in staying engaged and organized. School reform expert and author Peter Brimelow writes,

“By contrast, the school board’s incentives [for oversight] are weak. There is little countervailing reason for it to save taxpayer money or to safeguard management prerogatives. Surrendering gets the school board labor peace. School board trustees can be voted out of office for giving too much away-but the union is often the largest monetary contributor to school board campaigns and will support its friends. And if a school board trustee is philosophically aligned with the union, he may positively enjoy giving away the store.”

“Thus,” Brimelow continues, “the teacher/school board conclave effectively excludes other interested parties, such as parents or taxpayers.”

The incentives for the local taxpaying public have also been weak, but there are signs that things might be changing. One Illinois State Board of Education member has been quoted as saying that “referendums no longer work.” In other words, if the local school district wishes to get tax increases enacted, and the resulting democratic process doesn’t work the way the school districts want, more and more tax-increasing referendums fail at the ballot box.

The problem for concerned citizens, however, is that very little of the school’s business gets decided at the ballot box. The paid professionals decide curriculum, teacher contracts, and dozens of other issues. In fact, as Peter Brimelow writes,

“Bargaining for the contract is supposed to be local. But the NEA and its state affiliates are heavily involved, providing support, training, and expertise in even the smallest school districts.”

The bottom line is summed up by Brimelow:

“Through politics, the Teacher Trust is in effect capturing America’s government school system, beginning with its pervasive presence at the local level.”

Ultimately, the citizenry holds the power, but unless they exercise it, special interests will continue to hold the reins.

According to education analyst Terry Moe in a Brookings Institute forum in April, 2000, “The schools are supposed to be democratically controlled,” but they are not. Instead, in what is called a “new unionism,” “schools are basically run by the administration and the unions…”

“Nobody elected the unions. Why is it that this is an appropriate way for a democracy to control the schools? The schools are supposed to be run by elected officials who are responsible to constituencies. To the extent that the unions play an established, powerful role in that process, they are getting in the way of democratic control. And I think it does require real attention and justification because, on its face, it appears to be quite inconsistent with democratic control of the schools.”

The truth is our system does have in place mechanisms for reasserting real local control and accountability through the democratic process. Activists willing to challenge the vested interests will quickly find out the extent to which the process has broken down.

School professionals will deluge these activists with fancy terminology and ooze the sense of “we know better than you do when it comes to how to run the schools.” The reality is, however, if they did know better, there wouldn’t be the problem with inputs (tax dollars) and outputs (student achievement) that currently exists.

No better example exists than in the area of school funding and expenditures. As the Heartland Institute’s George Clowes has said concerning the ever-escalating costs of public schools when compared to the private schools, “You don’t even have to know how to add and subtract; all you need to know is which number is larger.”

©2008 John Francis Biver

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