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An interesting article by Chester Finn and Lisa Keegan in the Hoover Institution’s journal Education Next, positing elected school boards and local accountability as an anachronism that has outlived it’s day.

Finn is basically interested in the end of public education or failing that, reform of a radical scope. Some of his criticisms have great merit in a large-picture sense because the public school system is an ad hoc, irrational creature that has evolved slowly…very slowly..over time.

The public is most comfortable when the activity of their schools are familiar ones, regardless of whether they are doing well and tend to oppose innovations – again without examination of the intended reform or potential results. Change is usually opposed simply because it attempts something different from ” when WE were in school ” or because it affects vested interests – politicians, teacher’s unions, administrators, local business. In that sense, Finn and Keegan are quite correct about the public schools being ” conservative ” in a systemic sense. Scholar Larry Cuban documented as much in his history of American education 15 years ago so this observation is nothing new.

Their other contentions, that school boards are dominated by teacher’s unions or are not representative entities are less convincing. No, school boards do not have complete power to fire individual teachers without cause in collective bargaining situations but in my experience the relationship between unions and school boards are generally adversarial. Who is ” on top ” see-saws with time as it does in any other negotiation involving an employer and organized labor. Even situations where both sides tout ” collaborative ” bargaining, it tends to be with forced grins.

The claim that few boards are elected by a significant number of voters due to off-year elections is valid – but it applies to most other local and county offices as well. It’s an argument essentially against local control of any kind because the voters are apathetic, uninformed ( or self-interested) idiots – again there’s some validity here. Look at your local boards and elected officials, commissions and trustees.

However I think Finn’s complaint would be addressed less destructively to our democratic system by tackling the size of school districts to assure both democratic representation and accountability. Very large districts like Chicago and very small school districts encompassing only one or two schools are the ones that tend toward the greatest dysfunction, diseconomies of scale and political influence. Going with the quick fix of central control at the state or federal level because the American people are rubes, not to be trusted, is not an argument usually associated with conservatives. Central control, I would argue, has a very bad historical record as a principle of organization at just about anything other than war.

And if that’s not enough, just imagine the presidential candidate who you can’t stand deciding what all the kids in America are going to be taught next fall.

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