Sunday, April 11, 2010

Forget about that local democracy bit

One of the insights of Public Choice theory (a way of viewing political actors as self interested agents) is that intensely interested parties may often be able to exercise disproportionate influence over public policy to benefit their own interests at the expense of the common good. This proposal to vest greater control over local school districts and school boards with the state Superintendent of Public Instruction strikes me as a prime example.

I have no idea whether placing MPS under the responsibility of the Mayor would have helped whatever one agrees are completely unacceptable outcomes. The idea was to place responsibility for the schools with a public official to whom more people pay attention and whose election and re-election is more salient, i.e., more people pay attention. School board races attract few voters and tend to be denominated by those who are self interested in the status quo or in particular proposals fro reform. This results in a weaker demand for acountability on the part of the general public. If the mayor had to run for reelection based, in part, on the performance of the schools, it is more likely that something would get done.

One of the arguments against the takeover, however, is that it would diminish the voters' direct control over the schools. Better, the opponents said, to place responsibility for the schools in the hands of officials who must run for relection based on the performance of the schools and nothing else. This, opponents said, would maximize local control - and, in particular, control on the part of the community most affected by MPS - over the schools.

So now the idea is to move a substantial amount of that control - not merely the few miles from Vliet Street to Water Street - but to Madison. And it appears that some who opposed empowering the Mayor support placing ultimate power over the schools with DPI.

This seems inconsistent until you remember the insights of public choice theory. The election of the State Superintendent of Public Instruction is an extremely low salience (spring in the odd years) race that is marked by an extremely low turnout dominated by those who are self interested in public education. DPI has long had a reputation as a wholly owned subsidiary of the teachers' unions because the teachers' union has a disproportionate influence in the election of the Superintendent.

This is not to cast aspersions on Tony Evers or any other state Superintendent. It is just to note that, in an election dominated by WEAC, candidates whose views (presumably sincerely held) are more favorable to WEAC are likely to win. In fact, I am unaware that a candidate not favored by the teachers' union has ever been elected State Superintendent - at least not in my increasingly lengthy adulthood.

When seen in this way, any inconsistency seems explainable.

So, I think that this is a


yoSAMite said...

I would think that those who are concerned about the voters direct control over the schools would be in favor of breaking the district up into smaller units. It seems this would have the greatest amount of accountability by administration and voters.

Dad29 said...

Interesting that Sam said that.

I'm beginning to wonder if there is a classification like "Too Big to be Fixed".

MPS (and other large Gummint entities such as the State and the Fed) would seem to fall into that category.

George Mitchell said...

The only thing missing from the lame provisions described in this morning's paper is a blue-ribbon task force.

Clutch said...

Is the point that the general public is not allowed to vote for the Superintendent? Because that certainly would be bad. Is it true?

Or that the historical disproportionate interest that teachers take in voting for educational offices comes "at the expense of the common good"? I didn't see the argument for that.

In any case, I don't think you mean "inconsistency". Or if you do, you might consider explaining very carefully what you think the inconsistency is. Greater local control, and ultimate responsibility residing in a more distant location, are obviously perfectly consistent. Was there some other, genuine, inconsistency that you had in mind?

Thanks for any clarifications.