Last Wednesday the Maryland Senate’s Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee held hearings on two bills to create a more democratically accountable system for selecting school board members in Anne Arundel County.  One bill focused on fixing the electoral system for the eight adult members of the AACPS Board of Education; the other on fixing the system for the student member of the AACPS Board of Education.

The current method of selecting school board members is undemocratic because it ensures that our school board representatives will have an improper dependence on government staff.  In a democracy, government staff are supposed to be accountable to elected representatives, not vice versa.

Neither bill has any chance of passage during this session.  One reason is that the General Assembly considers this type of improper dependence a feature rather than a defect.

Unfortunately, elections per se are not necessarily the cure for this type of democratic failure.  The world has many countries with elections, such as Russia, Iran, and Venezuela, which suffer from severe democratic deficits.  Similarly, systems with elected school boards run the gamut from well-designed to awful.

If I were a betting man, I’d bet that when Anne Arundel eventually gets an elected system it will be closer to the awful than the well-designed side of the spectrum.  The reason is that an electoral system that keeps the special interests in control is probably the only type that is politically feasible.

Bills seeking to fix the system for selecting adult members have been a staple of the General Assembly for many years and so aren’t newsworthy.  The bill concerning the student member was new and generated what I consider to be a surreal framing of the public debate, which focused on the desirability of having a student on the school board rather than a student who is genuinely a representative of AACPS students rather than administrators.  The AACPS administrators who mobilized the students and screened their public testimony were terrified of such a framing and probably deserve the most credit for skillfully steering the public debate away from it.

One reason for the administrators’ advocacy is that the student member has been their most reliable vote on the board; for example, voting with the majority 99.7% of the time during the last 12 months, which may be some type of record for any type of legislator in Maryland.

I have included below my testimony on the two bills.

Steve Holcomb has a petition relating to the subject of Senate Bill 148.  The House of Delegates will consider an identical bill on February 19, 2014 at 1:00 pm.  I’m expecting that Senate Bill 194 will have no companion bill in the House of Delegates.

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Source: Snider, J.H., Two General Assembly Bills to Democratize the AACPS School BoardEye On Annapolis, February 2, 2014.