Local control and the problem of democratic delegation

At its core, the discussion of the “local control of the public schools” is about what is supposed to be the healthy operation of the democratic process. Unfortunately, the process is far from healthy. What, after all, does it mean to be local and who has the controls?

If federal and state union bureaucrats, for example, exert their powers during local teacher contract negotiations and the locally elected school board members are over-whelmed and concede to their demands, is that really local control at work?

Peter Brimelow, in his book, “The Worm in the Apple,” wrote:

“When the NEA speaks, politicians listen,” and that is true not only in the halls of the U.S. Congress or the fifty state legislatures. It applies at the local level as well, where the oft-praised “local control” has been weakened. Public schools in America by and large answer to regional and state bureaucratic institutions, on the one hand, and powerful regional and state teacher union organizations on the other. Local community leaders, as well as taxpayers and parents, are outgunned and out-manned every step of the way by what has been referred to as “the largest field army of paid political organizers and lobbyists in the United States.”

It may be true, as Brimelow writes, that “…normal people are simply not very interested in politics.” But with the exploding costs of maintaining the public schools, taxpayers might want to get a little more interested – especially at the local level where they can potentially wield some power. It’s not uncommon for a mere handful of citizens to rally together and impact politics at the local level, such as in defeating a referendum designed to raise tax rates.

As Americans led their busy lives and delegated the responsibility of public institutions to others, vested interests have stepped into the power vacuum to exert undo influence and control over those institutions. Unfortunately, however, that delegation has led to the explosion in school spending and a flat line in student academic achievement. In fact, the teachers unions have organized in a way that uses political power to increase their economic advantages. This has happened at taxpayers’ expense.  As a result, citizen oversight is called for. You might even say that the public schools are in need of some adult supervision.

Public school teachers unions aren’t the only one to do that. Peter Brimelow points out that:

“…Rutgers economist Leo Troy argued in his 1995 book The New Unionism in the New Society: Public Sector Unions in the Redistributive State,” these ‘new unions’ are fundamentally different from the ‘old,’ private sector unions.  Their primary weapon is political, not economic, power. They use it to redistribute income toward government, a process Troy calls ‘new socialism,’ and to insulate themselves from the key factor in private sector union decline: competition, from the service sector and overseas.”

While the vested interests have been organizing, taxpayers have by and large suffered the consequences of having forfeited real control over their local institutions. Their power and that of “local control” is now more theoretical than actual. Brimelow states:

“…the public gets a say on education policy when it votes on taxes, or for the legislators who impose taxes. And the public elects school board trustees to oversee the hiring and paying of teachers. However, the school board trustees usually don’t bargain either; they hire a professional negotiator to represent the district’s interests.”

So, in other words, as Brimelow wrote, “The public is at least two steps removed from process.  It rarely even knows what’s going on.”

Up next: Active public oversight solves the problem of too much delegation.

©2008 John F. Biver