The recent failure of the $50 million school bond proposal in New Rochelle by the slimmest of margins provides an opportunity to consider the state of local educational finance.
Among the largest industrial powers in the world, the United States is unique for the decentralization of its public educational system. Of course, for the distribution of effective political power from a central authority, Washington DC, to the 50 different state capitals, this country is a model for the world. By tradition, authority for funding and primary responsibility for curriculum of schools has rested with the states; direct administration and hiring and retention of teachers has been left to individual school districts, organized by county, city, town, village or some other political subdivision.
In the United Kingdom, government school policy is designed and broadly managed from London, the nation’s capital. In France, there is a similar national focus, though regionalized through 29 national school districts. In the rest of the world, the organization varies, with some nations providing deep local autonomy (Finland and Belgium) and others (primarily in Asia) holding to a strongly nationalized agenda.
What is most unique in the 50 American states is the apparent devolution of school control to localities resulting in a remarkable system of approximately 15,000 independent school boards. This offers an unmatched opportunity for individualized teaching to the student as well as municipal control of school management and finances. Distinguished from the centralized mechanism of foreign nations is this continent-sized laboratory for innovation and experimentation. This claimed “neighborhood” schooling from primary to higher educational institutions has long been prized as a uniquely American means for individual self-realization. The mobility of student pathways, along with disregard for ethnicity, religion, family origin and class has been a cornerstone of our meritocratic tradition.
As evidenced by developments in Westchester, however, economics and politics have combined to provide what might be the worst of both worlds; a seeming devolution of educational initiative to localities with the continued management of school affairs by distant, entrenched bureaucracies. So, what has been dreamed-of as an improvement upon old sclerotic models has evolved into a mere imitation of them.
Witness, the late New Rochelle bond resolution outcome. An imperious school board and board president and a tone-deaf superintendent conspired to slip a putatively democratic funding scheme past an clueless public. Some onlookers thought extraordinary fundraising might have been justified (at an unusual calendric juncture; six months after the passing of a one quarter-billion dollar annual budget, and likely six months before the likely passage of yet another one-quarter billion plus annual budget!) the prospectus was mysteriously opaque. Trumpeted safety emergencies were in fact resolved months ago; putatively urgent facility repairs and replacements were not to have been undertaken for another year and a half! – So why seek the extraordinary outlay now? An incomprehensible proportion of the outlay (20%, nearly $10 million) was to have been reserved for so-called soft costs; lawyers, auditors, title and bank fees). That the thing failed is only attributable to an accident; the usually airtight and waterproof coalition of teachers’ unions, Parent Teacher Associations, school boards and financial and career stakeholders failed to muster a sufficient “yes” contingent against a noisome, unfunded, collection of fiscal conservatives, independent intellectuals and others seeking only transparency and truth. Truly, a “Black Swan” political outcome!
Habitual opponents of school spending could be heard celebrating. But more tempered observers; those supportive of properly funded public education were troubled. While this perverse hatchling was defeated, what might be expected in May, the traditional season for school-related elections? This could present a fair opportunity for sober consideration of the plan’s merits. The concern of many however is that with more time for the “education of the public” and promulgation of the vote, the “machine” impulses of the school lobby might be given greater expression; rallies, phone banks, robo-calls and endorsements by community big-wigs to guarantee a successful “yes” vote. And in light of recent history, the fears would be justified.
Neither school nor library budgets in New Rochelle have been defeated in a decade. But for the occasional vote outcome in (would you believe it?) Mount Vernon and one extraordinary set of circumstances in Scarsdale, budgets and bonds for schools never fail in lower Westchester at all. And why should this be a surprise? Public education, while accounting for 60 to 70% of the local tax burden, rarely excites voter participation of greater than 10%.
It is a shameful record of desertion of civic duty; prosperous and well-educated citizens consciously refusing participation in questions of profound economic impact; failing to vote – in droves! And why is this so?
Some would perform their duty if only they could “spare the time.” Unquestionably true. A school board concerned about public participation (and not simply engineering ballot wins with specially interested parties of school employees, administrators and teachers) and dedicated to the education of the public about public education would increase turnouts. Greater “transparency” in publications and media pronouncements by the “mandarins” of public education would help too; but don’t look hard at the present complement of school panel members. An objective voice, a friend to small business or the common homeowner-taxpayer is hard to find.
To its “partizans,” the cause of public education is too sacred to be questioned. But with public treasuries hammered by inflating resource and personnel expense, wouldn’t a full and fair consideration of the real cost of local education be in order?
It has been said that war is too important to be left to the generals; might it also be offered that public education is too serious to be left to the educators and their “Amen” chorus of school boards? This most costly of local government action, the serious business of preparing the minds of our youth for service to self and community, presents important questions of fact and philosophy. Dare we leave them to the vagaries and silly circumstances of undersubscribed school popularity contests?