Should America look to school boards as the model for democracy?

December 2, 2012

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Seth Rosenblatt

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:

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.

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