Logic and Facts, not Democracy, be Damned!


Thanks to good ol’ Mike Petrilli, much of this week’s education policy debate has centered on the relevance of local school boards and the age old tug-of-war between state and local authority over the operation and financing of local public school districts. Much of the debate has been framed in terms of “democracy,” and much of it has been rather fun and interesting to watch.  That is, until Mike and the crew at Fordham decided to let Bob Bowdon (of Cartel fame) join in the conversation, and inject his usual bizarre understanding of the world as we know it.

This time, jumping in where Petrilli had left off, Bowdon opined about how teachers unions and their advocates repeatedly cry for respecting democracy while consistently thwarting democratic efforts through legal action. The layers of absurdity in Bowdon’s  logic are truly astounding, and perhaps best illustrated by walking through one of the examples he chooses.

Here’s how Bob Bowdon explains the Georgia charter school governance and finance decision of May 2011:

When the elected legislature in Georgia authorized the state’s chartering of schools, the Georgia Association of Educators union wasn’t so happy with the voice of the people. They later filed a brief in support of a lawsuit to strike down the law — and that suit prevailed. Democracy be damned.

http://www.educationgadfly.net/flypaper/2011/11/who-has-a-problem-with-democracy/

So, according to Bob Bowdon, the way this really ambiguously referenced case played out was that the Georgia legislature acting entirely on the will of the good Georgians that elected them, passed a law establishing a statewide commission to oversee the operation and distribution of funding to charter schools. The state teachers union got pissed simply because they don’t like charter schools. The teachers union filed a brief with a sympathetic liberal activist court, which then, under no authority at all… merely being responsive the gripes of the teacher’s union, struck down the charter law. A major blow against democracy. Democracy be damned!

Okay. Let’s take a closer look at what actually happened.  One reasonable summary can be found here: http://www.accessnorthga.com/detail.php?n=238715, see also: http://www.earlycountynews.com/news/2011-05-18/Front_Page/Court_ruling_leaves_charter_schools_in_limbo.html

First, let’s acknowledge that Georgia, like other states has a) elected state officials – the legislature – who pass laws, such as the charter school law they had passed which would allow a state commission to redirect county funding (county and area district tax revenues) to charter schools established within their boundaries [by way of reducing state aid in a equal amount], b) county and area boards of education charged with establishing and maintaining public schools within their limits, and c) a State Constitution which outlines these responsibilities (http://www.sos.ga.gov/elections/GAConstitution.pdf, bottom of Page 60). That’s kind of how stuff works in U.S. States.

The County board of education in Gwinnett County, GA was not thrilled when they were informed they would be required to transfer significant funds to charter schools established under the legislatively granted authority of the state commission. The county board of Gwinnett County (joined by many others to follow) challenged in court that the legislature violated the constitution by granting authority to this state commission to redistribute county tax revenues – and more specifically – to establish and maintain schools (that would draw on such tax revenues).  So, one level of elected officials – county officials – challenged that another level of elected officials – the state legislature – had interfered with their explicitly stated constitutional authority. And the court mediated this dispute (uh… ‘cuz that’s what courts do), finding in favor of the elected officials whose authority to establish and maintain schools was clearly articulated in the constitution?

How in the hell is that a case of “democracy be damned?”  How is this a case of a union thwarting the “voice of the people.” Quite honestly, these are among the most bizarre, warped distortions of reality I’ve seen in a damn long time.

That makes about as much sense as the rest of the arguments in the Cartel movie, or in the graphs at the end of this post!

 

Note: Another fun twist here is that apparently, in Georgia, judges are elected (http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/nge/Article.jsp?id=h-2841). Democracy be damned I tell you! How can these elected officials overturn the will of the people as expressed by the elected legislature, when challenged in court by elected county officials?

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2 Comments

    1. Neal McClusky at Cato makes a good point about our casual, imprecise use of the term “democracy” in the post linked here. I did not delve into this in my post, and more or less allowed the imprecise terminology to slip past. Clearly there are huge differences between simple majority rule through direct democracy and our constitutional republic with separation of powers, and I certainly favor the latter. My point above is that Bowdon completely misrepresents not just a single judicial decision, but the notion of the “will of the people” as expressed through our form of government, especially in Georgia and especially in this case. By Bowdon’s strange logic, the will of the people in Georgia is only expressed through the legislation adopted by elected state officials – the state legislature. Local elected officials apparently don’t count – and in Bowdon’s view, the choice of these local elected officials to challenge the constitutionality of state legislative action is somehow an attack on the will of the people. Further, the judicial mediation of this dispute – by an elected judiciary – is an extension of that attack on the will of the people?

      Really, the big question which goes back to Mike Petrilli’s post is determining the right balance between centralized and local control, as carried out by our elected officials at each level. Certainly the process of electing our officials at either the local, state or federal level can become corrupted over time. Local elections can be corrupted (or at least be less expressive of the “will of the people”) by imbalanced influence on those elections and so too can state and federal elections. It would seem that Petrilli’s core argument is that local elections are necessarily most corrupt and most imbalanced because, as he sees it, local elections are entirely controlled, essentially owned by teachers’ unions, whereas state and federal elections clearly remain more pure? less influenced by imbalance of money/power? So, essentially, Mike’s argument is that we must negate the policy decision making power of the most corrupted level of the system, which in his view, are local elected officials. I find that a really hard argument to swallow.

      Alternatively, on can argue, as I used to (and still do on some occasions), that the higher levels of government should – by representing larger and more diverse constituencies and by having greater access to resources (including bigger budgets) – be able to accumulate better technical capacity to make more informed policy decisions. That is, to develop/design/adopt policies better grounded in technical analysis of what works. I’ve become increasingly cynical on this point of late, and quite honestly, I’m generally unwilling to see the overall power distribution shift more heavily from local to state, especially to federal policy decision making.

      I still feel strongly that due to economic inequities in tax base and other measures of collective fiscal capacity of communities to provide schools – many of which were induced by policies of housing segregation and discrimination – that states must play a strong role in revenue redistribution in order to ensure that children, regardless of where they live, have access to equitable and adequate schooling. I still feel that state agencies can, perhaps provide technical support to local schools and districts which are struggling, but I fear that state agencies (departments of education) have become increasingly politicized and instead of providing technical support, are now invariably promoting political agendas (perhaps I’m just waking up to something that’s been occurring all along?), and in many cases forcing ill-conceived politically motivated “reforms” on struggling districts and schools (rather than ensuring access to sufficient resources). See my previous post on pundits vs. practitioners.

      So, at this stage in my life and career, I’m not willing to cede to the idea of eliminating entirely the role of local elected officials (or even unbalancing these roles further), as Mike Petrilli might wish. Nor do I accept that a reason for eliminating local elected officials from the mix is that local elections are most corrupted by money & uneven influence (of unions?). This seems merely an argument of convenience from the Pettrillian standpoint that right now, he just happens to agree more with the policies of states – and potential to influence federal policy in order to control states – than the push-back of locals. That’s a rather common perspective from inside the beltway. It’s logistically easier for an organization like Fordham Institute to have disproportionate impact on policy through a single locus of control – federal gov’t – than through 15,000 local governments. And that’s precisely why we need those 15,000+ local governments.

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