With the November election behind us, it’s a good time to reflect on what works and doesn’t work in our democracy.
Clearly there are amazing things about the American system, but this election was an extraordinary illustration of how far the U.S. political system has strayed from its intentions and ideals. In addition to the particularly egregious efforts such as active voter suppression, we observed a record amount of election spending and the noxious influence of that money on our system.
On the national scale, we’ve been witness to the most fractious and negative political environment ever, and in California the initiative system continues to prove how, ironically, it has become the very thing that is was created to prevent: the damaging influence of money and power. Our political parties have become intractable, and money has become speech; more than $420 million was spent on California proposition campaigns alone and more than $2 billion spent on the U.S. presidential election.
November 6th reminded me that there is still one political body that has largely not strayed from our ideals and is not buried under the weight of money or party politics: the local school board. Ironically, there are a number of voices who point to school boards as part of the problem in public education and/or advocate for massive consolidation among school districts. Although in some cases there could be benefits to school district consolidation, I would argue that the current scope of school boards more closely reflects the intention of our democracy and is fundamentally more effective in a number of key ways:
- Independence: Most school board members don’t declare a political party, generally require modest funds to run a campaign, and have little ambition for “higher office.” These three aspects alone remove much of the influence of outside interests, freeing up the elected official to rely more and more on collaboration with his/her colleagues, information from experts, and good judgment. No political party has ever told me how I need to vote on an issue (and I’ve never taken a silly “pledge” committing that I will always, or never, do something), and I don’t receive much attention from lobbyists.
- Accountability: I run into my constituents every day. People recognize me when I walk down the street. I personally answer every e-mail and phone call I get. If someone asks to meet with me, I have coffee with them. Try doing that with your U.S. Congressperson, State Senator, or even County Supervisor. Their territory is just too big to be that familiar with all of the citizens. It is this closeness which creates that accountability – I cannot hide anywhere.
- Public participation: The flip side of the accountability coin is the ability for the public to participate in the process. In our little town, everyone is within a five-minute drive of every public board meeting, and there are so many avenues to communicate with their local elected representatives.
- Intimacy/knowledge: Just as the closeness with the community creates accountability, it also creates a sense of intimacy and a more specific knowledge about the district over which one governs. Especially in a school district, where the support and energy of the community is so vital, I would argue this allows the board member to make better decisions. Every school board member comes to appreciate that many of their issues are truly local and dependent upon the culture of that community, and even these subtle differences can drive more optimal decisions.
- Citizen representatives: Most school board positions are part-time and many are unpaid (or just paid a small stipend). This makes it clear that being a “politician” is not a career path for most board members, so there is little pressure to twist your values and judgment and conform to what you think people want to hear.
- Separation of executive authority and political role: School board members are elected; superintendents are not. This is more similar to a corporate board model, where a board selects and manages the CEO. Of course superintendents are affected by “politics,” but they are freer to be honest experts in the affairs of a school district, and largely they retain or lose their job based on their actual performance.
There is one caveat to my above assertions: The larger the school district gets, the more likely the above benefits will diminish. Larger school boards will start to acquire some of the negative dynamics of other political bodies (arguing once again against massive school district consolidation). There is no magic number for when a school district “gets too big” – it is rather a continuum – but in my observation, once a district gets bigger than around 10,000 students, the above benefits start to dissipate quickly. Certainly the largest school districts, such as San Francisco, Oakland, and Los Angeles, generate hundreds of thousands (or millions) of dollars in campaign contributions for school board races and often become the stage for a political battle between unions and reformers. But the far majority of school districts around our state are fairly solid examples of American democracy.
I’m not suggesting that all of the benefits of our local democracy can practically apply at the state or national level, but it is worth discussing what elements of our school board system work and how we can approximate those benefits more broadly. For example, how can we diminish the damaging influence of money and party politics in our state and in our nation? Naturally the school board system is far from perfect, and there are horror stories about terrible school board members and stupid decisions. Every organization will have stronger and weaker representatives. But if we just consolidated and gave the political body a greater scope, do we actually believe we’d have stronger and more accountable representatives who would make better decisions? The evidence suggests otherwise.
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Seth Rosenblatt is the president of the Governing Board of the San Carlos School District, currently in his second term. He also serves as the president of the San Mateo County School Boards Association and sits on the Executive Committee of the Joint Venture Silicon Valley Sustainable Schools Task Force. He has two children in San Carlos public schools. He writes frequently on issues in public education, in regional and national publications as well as on his own blog. Seth has more than 20 years of experience in media and technology, including executive positions in both start-up companies and large enterprises. Seth currently operates his own consulting firm for technology companies focused on strategy, marketing, and business development. He holds a B.A. in Economics from Dartmouth College and an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School.