As my project for this Government 103 class, I was asked to visit a government body in action. My selection for this project was to visit the Fairfax County School Board at their bi-monthly meeting on November 15. There were many reasons this was my choice, not the least of which being that I was a student in the Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) system for over six years and, to be frank, hated it.

If I learned nothing else from the ordeal of visiting this school board function, it was that such boards are even more ill suited for the function they serve than I had originally believed. It has always baffled me why school boards in modern times are elected, with virtually all other county-level officials appointed by the elected Board of Supervisors. School system management strikes me as a position better suited to a Superintendent and his staff, rather than a politicized board of elected officials.

The Bickering on Financial Autonomy

During my visit to the FCPS board, a significant amount of time was dedicated to discussions regarding the “legislative package”. This is the set of requests that the Fairfax County (and presumably other school boards) send off to the Virginia state legislature in Richmond. Part of the legislative package that FCPS has sent to Richmond for apparently years past includes a request that the legislature appoint a commission to investigate financial autonomy for school boards.

Were a school board granted financial autonomy, they would no longer rely on county Boards of Supervisors to provide them with funding, as the school board would be granted by the state a right to impose a tax on the citizenry for their own purposes. It would allow them to become, in essence, a second county government with tax-and-spend powers (though limited only to schools).

For a good 45 minutes or so of the November 16th meeting, the members debated not only whether the section calling for a commission be included in the legislative package, but the validity of school boards having financial autonomy in general. As this debate raged on up front, it occurred to me: If the school board is spending 45 minutes debating something so blatantly political and relatively irrelevant to the quality of public education in the county, perhaps they have far too much power as it is.

And the Beat Goes On

This revelation certainly didn’t stop there. The discussions about the legislative package went on regarding such political issues as school vouchers, tax rebates and sales taxes for schools, and who is “allied” with northern Virginia serving on the state legislature. I couldn’t help but think, “is this board doing anything for our schools!?”

Well, the answer is that yes they do. The school boards make important decisions about textbooks, teacher hiring, salaries, new buildings, and various other little tidbits that came up during the evening. But I would ask if these are the kinds of decisions we want being made by a school board full of members vying for reelection. Americans have distrust for politicians, and yet we’ve turned the boards that make the decisions affecting our nations’ school children directly into political bodies.

And in the 2016 Secretary of Defense Election . . .

In the United States we have a convoluted, though unarguably functional and logical government. Speaking now about the Federal-level, we elect the top level – the president and the legislature – who in-turn appoint people to head the different departments, who in turn wield power over the professional employees of the bureaucracy. We do not elect each individual tax-man, our Attorney General, or the Secretary of Defense (for example).

Allowing elected officials to run these departments simply would not make sense because the people who should make the decisions regarding taxes should be professionals in the tax field, our Secretary of Defense should have some background with defense, and the attorney general should be some kind of a lawyer. Yet the people who make the top-level decisions should simply be citizens, and should have to answer specifically to the citizens. This is the way our system is organized, top to bottom, with school boards being the one major exception.

Management of a school system, like management of a company or army, is a job for professionals, not for average citizens answering to the whims of the re-election winds.

Vote For Me, I Like Your Company’s Math Book . . .

Politics is a game of catering to the majority, and it’s naïve to believe that the majority is always right. Many of the founding fathers took steps to ensure that functional government be protected from the whims of the people, and yet receptive to their deep (and informed) opinions by separating much of the government from direct elections. Elective school boards do not have this protection, and members are forced to balance what is really best for the students against the uninformed perceptions of the public.

It’s a simple fact that the average citizen does not know what math, history, or government textbook will do the best job of teaching kids. The average citizen has no idea how policies affect students in schools or what “financial autonomy” would do to their local school district. Yet, school board members must take into account the opinions of those average citizens in their decision making because if they do not, they stand more chance of losing their position in the next election cycle.

We, as citizens, do not expect this kind of control with regards to our military actions or our tax collection. No, we elect a president and congress to filter our views down the line in a reasonable fashion. Likewise, at the local government level, we elect county Boards of Supervisors to pull those kinds of top-level strings for county government.

And You Think Congress is Redundant?

As a political body, local school boards duplicate what the county Board of Supervisors already does. As an educational body, they miss the point by bickering about issues like “financial autonomy”. As a management body, they hinder the actions of a qualified superintendent and their staff. They are a drain on tax resources, and a detriment to the education of American school children. School boards simply do not work. They are a flawed concept rooted in the citizenry’s selfish quest for control, and politicians’ selfish quests for power.

In an ideal world, top-level decisions would be made my county legislatures and passed down to professional school managers. By throwing excess political and procedural hogwash into the mix in the form of an elective school board, we do the children of this nation a huge disservice.