Some reformers mistrust school boards almost as much as they despise teachers unions. It’s not that they have any particular beef with democratic control of public schools. It’s that they’ve come to see the unions on both sides of the bargaining table. That’s because said unions often manage to capture the very boards with which they then negotiate.
By running their own candidates for school board, through endorsements, by providing campaign cash, and by pressing for school-board elections to continue to occur on dates when voters have no other reason to come to the polls, they can ensure that their interests are represented on the “management” side of the table as well as the “labor” side. This is part of what has fostered reformers’ interest in alternative forms of governance—like appointed boards or mayoral control.
So it was fascinating, reassuring, and perhaps significant the other day when Anne Bryant, the long-time executive director of the National School Boards Association and America’s foremost defender of school boards as we know them, said that it is “wrong” for unions to “buy” school-board seats. This happened at a Fordham Institute panel, Are School Boards Vital in 21st Century America? Gene Maeroff, former New York Times education reporter and president of the Edison, New Jersey Board of Education, had just explained that the teachers were running a union activist to unseat him—in an election that was to take place the day after our panel. (Good news: Maeroff won.) Here’s what Bryant said.
I think it’s wrong. I think that unions buying the school board’s seat is just plain wrong. There should be the distinction between management and labor and governance, and management and labor. That is not to say that in our democracy unions don’t have the right to put campaign money into an election. But I have to admit that having the kind of situation that Gene described to me about the candidates being put up by the union doesn’t always get you the best school board members. And I think, in the past, we’ve seen that that bias has led to some decisions that now are fiscally unhealthy. We’ve got pension systems that are almost bankrupt. We’ve got healthcare delivery issues with teachers unions that are killing us, strangling us financially. Now, were those done for the right reasons? You know, twenty years ago it was oh so far away, instead of raising teachers’ salaries we’ll give them better retirement systems. Well, it sounded good twenty years away, but now we’re paying for it.
Similar words could well have been spoken by Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein, Jeb Bush, or any other dyed-in-the-wool reformer. What’s not yet clear, however, is what Bryant might propose as a remedy. Panelists talked about greater “transparency” of board candidate’s funding, endorsements, and policy views. That might help. And certainly reformers can run their own candidates (as Maeroff did in Edison). But won’t many school boards continue to be influenced if not actually captured by the unions in lots of places much of the time? And if so, will Bryant acknowledge that there just might be a fatal flaw with elected local boards? And maybe set forth some promising alternatives?
Regardless, the defense of “the school board as we know it” just got dramatically weaker. And Anne Bryant’s place in the pantheon of impatient reformers just got more secure.