By John Brockmeyer
In Jefferson County, the thirteenth-largest school district in the U.S., the education of nearly one-hundred thousand students is controlled by a five member, volunteer school board selected in a “non-partisan” election. Not that these folks have no agenda, political leanings, or party affiliations. Rather, those preferences are carefully hidden from voters by an officially sanctioned process that pretends to absolute neutrality, but in fact exacerbates the worst aspects of special interest campaigns.
And this process has been repeated for nearly 40 years in school districts large and small throughout the country, ever since the NEA and AFT (teachers unions) realized the advantage of controlling both sides of their contract negotiations.
Time and the political process have distilled two reasonably clear, opposing approaches to education. The first calls for decentralized control in the form of parental choice, whether solely within the public schools (e.g., charter schools) or including non-public forms such as private and home schools through vouchers, tax credits, and other empowering mechanisms. The choice model also calls for “measurement”, that is the testing of both students and teachers to measure achievement.
The second model, preferred by the unions, promotes centralized control, curriculum standardization, socialization, and the so-called “Outcome-based Education” based on teaching techniques such as Whole Language. The centralized model also includes measurement, but significantly, typically only of students.
Republicans tend to prefer the first model, Democrats the second–although there are notable exceptions, such Wisconsin Democratic State Rep. Polly Williams, a strong voucher advocate.
Not surprisingly, special interests have joined the fracas. The teachers’ unions almost exclusively support the Democrats, while private school entrepreneurs and associations often lean Republican. Unfortunately, this balance is hardly an even one. Candidates endorsed by the teachers’ unions regularly outspend their non-endorsed counterparts by 10-to-1, 20-to-1, or more as the unions seek to retain control over billions of tax dollars funneled to the public school establishment (and by extension, the salaries and benefits of their members).
Odd-year, non-partisan school board elections devolve into the classic perversion of the Golden Rule: “Those who have the gold make the rules.” Without the participation of the respective party structures, pro-freedom candidates are outgunned and overwhelmed by their better-financed opponents. Often, the union-endorsed slate includes a nominally Republican crossover candidate, thus muddling the task of voters who frequently have, at best, superficial interest in and understanding of the underlying philosophical issues.
Why then, are school board elections officially non-partisan? Why are they held in off-years? If education is the nations top priority, as both parties so regularly profess, why not elect its controlling authorities through the normal, partisan process?
A primary and general election struggle would serve to fully air philosophical differences, piques voter interest, and help to sharpen distinctions among the candidates. Presuming each side believes its approach is superior, shouldnt both be anxious to tout their virtues and decry the inadequacies of the opponents? In this age of “campaign reform”, surely neither side is desirous of a small, concentrated-interest voting block overwhelming an artificially depressed electoral turnout.
Any slate of candidates victorious in a fully participatory election would be guaranteed a mandate for their philosophy. That slate would clearly have demonstrated the integrity and intellectual honesty expected of those who, as their employees, are eight-hour surrogate parents to the nations youth. Such a triumph would quell the rancor that all too often accompanies deeply divided boards, the bitter feuds that are regularly condemned by the media. The administration of education would be set on a clearly defined path reflecting the values of the majority of the community.
Any takers? After all, its for the children.
John Brockmeyer wrote this article for the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank in Golden, https://i2i.org.
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