Why we need those 15,000+ local governments?

Posted on November 18, 2011



Neal McClusky at Cato Institute 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 previous 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 original point was that Bowdon completely misrepresents not just a single judicial decision in Georgia, 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 versus 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 become less expressive of the “will of the people”) by imbalanced influence (the will of some preferred more than others) 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 in favor of centralization, 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.This perhaps where my perspectives begin to diverge most dramatically from McClusky’s preferred policy solutions (though we’ve not debated/discussed the particulars).

I still feel that state agencies can (in their better days), 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 Petrillian 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 current push-back of locals. That’s a rather common perspective from inside the beltway (physically or mentally). It’s logistically easier for an organization like Fordham Institute (which casts itself as providing research/technical guidance?) to have disproportionate impact on policy through a single locus of control – federal gov’t – than through 15,000 local governments (that takes a lot of leg work). And that’s precisely why we need those 15,000+ local governments!

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