Yesterday the Washington Post ran a news report on the school board reform passed by our Maryland Senate delegation and currently being considered by our House delegation. The headline reads: “School Board Bill: No Election, but more Say for the Public.” In case anybody didn’t get the message, the opening paragraph explains: “the measure would give the public more control over who is selected and how long they serve.”
The rest of the article, rather surprisingly, doesn’t provide a whit of evidence to back up the assertion in the title and in the opening paragraph. We learn about the politics of the bill—the recent Senate vote and the major players for and against it. But as to why it is so democratic, we can only infer that it is because under the present system the governor has the discretion not to pick one of the two nominees recommended by the School Board Nominating Convention.
So let me get this right. The Governor is a democratically elected official. Five of the eleven members of the proposed Nominating Commission are self-selected, unelected representatives of private organizations. In theory, the other six are appointed by elected officials (five from the Governor). But we know from experience with this type of Commission that there is great political pressure to act by consensus (usually, there is no political payoff in making a controversial decision), so the other five will, as a practical matter, have veto power. Thus, we are going to give this unelected body binding election authority while taking it away from an elected governor, and we are going to call this giving the public more control over who is elected.
At the same time, we are going to substitute approval voting for competitive elections/appointments. As I’ve explained elsewhere, approval voting is generally considered to be far less democratic than competitive elections. It is sometimes used with judicial appointments, but the reference point there is often lifetime appointment (e.g., appointment to the Supreme Court). As a practical matter, those elected by approval voting are rarely defeated, so the de facto term of a school board member would increase from five to ten years.
But the problems with approval voting go beyond that. School board members will learn that the only way they can be defeated after their first term is by doing something controversial. Thus, a rational school board member will do even more than presently to avoid controversy. But how does a successful drive get established to recall a school board member? Generally, only a narrow interest group has the motivation and means to pull off one of these recall elections. Thomas Wolfe, in the Bonfire of the Vanities, describes one of these recall elections but for a sitting judge. In Wolfe’s book, it is the best judge on the bench who makes a tough call and alienates a key group who gets the hook. And since, in the real world of politics (not the make believe world that typically is reported in local newspapers), you don’t go after someone for the real reason, you find the opponent’s weak point and then launch a campaign of slander. Alternatively, consider the ballot initiatives in California. They appear to be democratic, but in fact it is so difficult to get an item on the ballot and then win a majority vote that special interests overwhelmingly dominate the process.
In short, I don’t buy the argument that the school board reform bill likely to pass in this legislature gives the public more say. Whether or not you buy it, I hope you will agree that it is at least a controversial assertion that deserves public debate. This reporter, by giving us all spin and no argument, has failed in providing that debate.