Friday, December 5, 2008

Democracy Inaction

This post started as a comment to an entry on another site, which is linked below. But, I just couldn't help but expand on the issue after it lingered in my mind for a few hours.

The Delaware News Journal publish an article here yesterday that outlined some of the work of the Leadership in Education Action (LEAD) Committee, which is seeking to change the way that Delaware schools are funded and adjust their finances. Delaware Politics posted here in defense of the current system of referendum, saying:

I favor the right of the people to have oversight over their property taxes. More importantly, I favor the right of referendum more broadly. Referendum is an expression of the basic right of the people to alter their form of government...We need the ability to bring active oversight from the people into the process. The best mechanism is the power of the ballot.

I seriously disagree with this view, and a quick lesson in the American democratic system will tell you why. The school district system of governance in Delaware is unique among any others in the state and for only one reason: referendum overuse. The result of this deficiency is limited public participation and deficient political representation. School district residents do not go to public meeting, do not read-up on the issues (including budgets), and do not provide the necessary level of input to the board members who represent them. Lastly, almost no one votes in school board elections (comparatively speaking), so potentially under-qualified people become board members end up making decisions "on the fly."

The US and our state was established as a representative democracy, not a direct democracy. I believe referendums have their place, like in circumstances that would put our schools at risk (e.g., a large bond issue that was more than half the value of the district's assets). We need to take more responsibility for getting very able people elected to the school board who can make good decisions and are well-informed about the way our school do and should function. Then, we needn't worry about whether or not they poll us every time they need to adjust their finances. This system would be no different that the cities, counties, the state, and even neighborhood civic associations, all of which share this same financial flexibility.

The current system of public education in Delaware does not seem to work and seems to continue to fall in quality and number of available each year (I am sure that there are plenty of exceptions to this, but I'm just making an opinion-based observation, here, ok?). The root cause is a rambling domino-effect of problems. I believe all this can be traced to jaded, unenthusiastic, and discouraged political leadership in the school board. Many of these leaders run unopposed in under-attended elections for a governing body to which no one pays attention. These elections and board meetings are largely ignored by citizens because of their relative and seeming unimportance in contrast to budget referendums, which are seen as the ultimate "choke-chain" on a system that we see as a "misbehaving dog." Referendums are voted down over and over again until a critical point of crisis is reached. I believe we are at this very point of crisis, and there is but one solution: let. democracy. work.

If we would just let the representative democratic system work as it should, we could have the peace of mind knowing that the best possible leaders are in place making the best possible decisions about administration and finance of the schools on our behalf. Then, maybe we'll realize that is is we who are the "misbehaving dog" pulling the choke-chain on the collar of our suffocating master who is vital to our own survival and that of our mind, you get the analogy.

It is certainly hard for anyone to let go of power, especially the power over money that we see as ultimately "mine." If we could just let go (maybe with a provision for the new system to sunset and revert back in five years if it doesn't work) and give away the power to control "our" money to leaders who we choose very carefully and deliberately, who are undoubtedly able and can be trusted, I think we'll become increasingly satisfied with the quality of our schools and the great job such a group of leaders can do without the uninformed public leash of the referendum slowly choking them to the doom of vouchers and an increasing majority of private-school students.

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