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Matthew Stokes: On the School Board Shakeup

By MATTHEW STOKES, Alabama Daily News Columnist

One of the great challenges in living in a democracy is determining exactly how much say the electorate should have in political matters. America is, after all, a nation founded on the principle of representation, as the colonists revolted mostly over their lack of representation in the matter of taxation.  This same argument manifests itself in arguments over the Supreme Court and the rest of the federal judiciary that is often derided as a group of unelected legislators.

At the state level, voters often find themselves caught up in a myriad of ballot initiatives that they do not understand because the issues are either to complicated or too specific to a particular locale.  That problem is built into the heart of the Alabama state constitution, where every election voters are faced with some minute piece of legislation that affects a municipality a hundred miles away. For example: this distinction is present throughout Alabama’s debates over a state lottery.  Legislators are not debating a bill that would create a lottery; they are instead debating a lottery bill that would in turn become the responsibility of the electorate.  

The same distinction is now at the heart of a debate over a new measure proposed by Governor Kay Ivey and Senate Pro Tem Del Marsh that would recreate the state’s board of education.  As it currently stands, the state board is directly elected by the voters. Marsh and Ivey’s plan would replace the seven member elected board with a nine member board appointed by the governor to staggered terms, each member requiring approval by the state senate.  The legislation would also require the new commission to replace Common Core, a policy decision opposed in this space some weeks back.

Alabama is currently one of only seven states with an elected school board.  Given that America’s education problems extend beyond seven states, it is true that the makeup of a state’s school board is not the root of the state’s success or failure in education.  Yet disfunction at the state board has been a persistent problem for years. While comprised of good people who obviously care about the welfare of the state’s children, school board members have often been able to return to office by appealing to voters’ base instincts without presenting a clear vision for improving the state’s education system.  This situation cannot last, and Governor Ivey is right to try to restructure the board.

One objection to this proposal is that Ivey and Marsh do not trust the voters.  Setting aside for a moment the question of whether the voters have made good, informed decisions, the current system is simply not working.  Change should always be approached with caution but, at this point, Alabamians should have ample proof that the system stands in need of a significant overhaul.  As an electoral matter, education policy is hard. It is complicated. It is not something that can be boiled down to political sound bites so often employed by politicians.  Few voters, including this columnist, are equipped to adjudicate the policies and procedures necessary to run a state school system. Alabama may be better served by entrusting this decision to the executive, and holding that office directly accountable for both its appointees and the decisions those appointees make.

As it currently stands, the governor can make a plea to the legislature; she can even work with legislators to push for specific proposals.  But the makeup of the state school board is such that its members set their own agenda; the governor is left almost entirely out of the loop.  While that may serve to limit political cronyism and make board members directly answerable to the voters, the nature of elected office is such that politicians win election on the back of sentiment and feeling.  Alabama would be better served by forcing current and future governors to embody their education proposals in the form of appointed board members. The truth is that the governor has very limited control over education policy, which means that gubernatorial candidates have little need to articulate a vision for education, knowing full well that vision could be neutralized by not only the legislature, but the school board itself.  This proposal would give the governor actual skin in the game, knowing that voters could hold her accountable for bad appointments over time.

While this change would empower the state’s current governor, the proposal would permanently alter the state’s arrangement.  This means that future governors, of any party, would enjoy the same power and privilege, much the same way that the President sets an agenda through the myriad of bureaucratic appointments made every four years.  These changes would not be permanent. If voters are dissatisfied with the state’s education progress, the governor faces reelection every four years. Governors will be forced to take seriously the task of improving the state’s education, placing trust, it is hoped, in experts instead of politicians.  The state could certainly do much worse.

Beyond the governor, the appointment process would force the state senate to deal directly with appointees.  While recent days have down that dysfunction can be as real in the state senate as it is in any other part of government, this process would force senators to reckon with policy and procedures that go deeper than a post on social media or a one-liner saved for talk radio.  Assuming a high quality of appointees to the state board, this interaction between the two branches of government would be a positive one.

In the end, change must come from a number of different areas, including homes, communities, and local schools and school board.  Yet state government maintains an indispensable role, and this proposed revamping is a step in the right direction. There are some things only the state can do, and these changes would mark a serious improvement in the operation of Alabama’s state school board.

Matthew Stokes is a writer living in Birmingham. Email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @yellingstop.

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