Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Why not elect the superintendent of schools?

This week, prompted by our city’s charter revision process, the Press-Citizen published two opinion pieces advocating that we shift to a strong-mayor form of city government. Both pieces emphasize that we should vest real decision-making power in elected officials, rather than career bureaucrats. One writer writes: “Policy should be actively made by people who answer directly to voters, not passively rubber-stamped after it’s been staff-crafted the way Iowa City has done it for decades.” Says the other: “Our present city manager form of government puts too much power into the position of the unelected city manager and the staff. The council is usually passive due to its low salary and its relatively small time commitment compared to the staff.”

Hmm, that sounds familiar. How is it that no one ever applies that same logic to the administration of our public schools?

There are good arguments both for and against strong-mayor local government. As a result, different cities make different choices; strong-mayor government is one fairly common choice. Yet I’ve never heard of any school district anywhere in which the superintendent is elected. I assume there are statutes in every state that would forbid it. Why is the idea so unthinkable—and so different from strong-mayor city government—that it should not happen anywhere?

Maybe it reflects the (in my view, misguided) idea that education is a science and so must be insulated from the workings of democracy. Or maybe it reflects the idea that K-12 education is now so tightly micromanaged by state and federal bureaucracies that it needs to be run by professional bureaucrats rather than elected officials. Neither explanation reflects well on the state of public education.

How is it that aspects of democracy that are unremarkable in other contexts seem so alien to the world of K-12 education? What is it about education and democracy that doesn’t mix?


pooter said...


I didn't take the time to read the opinion pieces; if I'm significantly wrong here tell me and I will. I doubt that I would hear something I haven't before.

I guess, two questions. Do we know why or when, historically, Iowa City adopted the City Manager model? I would be happy to research this in my free time, but it might take a while.

The idea of an elected superintendent seems crazy when you look how short-sighted certain states can be when it comes to their ideology-inflected attempts to correct the curriculum--Texas, Kansas, etc. How would politicizing the position further be an improvement?

On the other hand, look at our current Iowa Board of Regents, appointed by the Governor, and approved by at least part of the legislature. Worst ever in my opinion with the current ruling that declared war on the UI.

So, no I don't have any better ideas off the top of my head. Education is NOT a science; it is a political kickball. When I was growing up here in the 70's and 80's Iowa was one of the most educated states in the country; after 16 years of Branstad and the introduction of gambling we dropped a lot.

I would also end saying it seems that our current administration in the school district seems to have lost its way, and reacts against transparency for no apparent reason except for disliking having to explain themselves. But of course, policy that no one admits to writing must have come from god, or at least Charlton Heston.

Matt Townsley said...

According to one study, thirty-five states, including Iowa, require a special license or credential endorsement to serve as a superintendent. In other states, no credential at all may be required. (Source: http://www.ctc.ca.gov/educator-prep/asc/asc-analysis-of-usa-requirements.pdf)

In Iowa, school superintendents must be certified by the board of educational examiners. This usually involves x number of years as a teacher followed by a masters degree and certification to serve as principal. After x years as a principal and more coursework, an educator is eligible for superintendent licensure.

If Iowa were to begin electing superintendents, a licensure change may be needed, too. (FWIW)

Julie VanDyke said...

Oh but dearest Pooter, it wasn't written by God, it was written by Mr. Murley and Chace Ramey according to what I hear here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=YbFUjMglgq0#t=5

and according to a one word update of the transcription here:

“Tuyet Dorau: So you’re the chair of the policy and engagement committee, and this came under your watch. So who wrote the policy?

Brian Kirschling: It showed up at the first policy and engagement meeting of this year.

Dorau: Who wrote the policy? Does anybody know?


Dorau: That’s a problem.

Sally Hoelscher: I have not . . .

Superintendent Steve Murley: I know that initial conversations about the policy were with Joe [Holland, the board’s legal counsel], in the room—I don’t recall who wrote drafts of it, as it went through, but I know he looked at it prior to actually being drafted, and I think that some of the comments that I read [earlier in this meeting] were part of that dialogue that we had with him about that at that time, too.

Dorau: So it was written by administration?

Murley: No, I don’t believe we wrote it, I—to be honest with you, I don’t recall.

Chief Human Resources Officer Chace Ramey: Yes, it’s true. Tuyet, yes, yes, a conversation that came back to us, and Steve [Murley] and I worked on it, after some conversations with Joe, and it was put together then, and sent back as it was asked for.
Chris, Chace Ramey didn’t say after “some” conversations with Joe. He said, “after HIS discussions with Joe.”
Speaking moments after Steve Murley’s back to back contradictory statements then alleged total memory lapse, CHACE RAMEY CONFIRMS THAT THE GUIDELINES/POLICY DRAFT, in what appeared ready final form, INTRODUCED AT THE POLICY & ENGAGEMENT COMMITTEE MEETING BY just then PAST 2-TERM ICCSD SCHOOL BOARD PRESIDENT at the time, CURRENT BOARD VICE PRESIDENT, MARLA SWESEY, magically, since its first public appearance during the first P&E meeting of 2013-14…IN A COMMITTEE MEETING SUBJECT TO IA OPEN MEETING LAW AT WHICH THEY WERE ONLY SCHEDULED TO BE FIRST DISCUSSED TOWARDS DEVELOPMENT OF, not appear already written, CHAIRED BY JUST ELECTED DIRECTOR BRIAN KIRSCHLING…
…moments before Chace spoke, Steve said he “did not believe” he and/or his administration members had written it. Then Steve black and white changed the alleged truth of what he’d just said to “I—to be honest with you, I don’t recall”.
…If you listen carefully, as I did many times before writing this paragraph,
One of the most crucial points Chace interrupted the board table discussion to make, moments after Murley’s contradictory truth statements, is found in the word “HIS”. What that means in context is that Ramey verifies Superintendent Steve Murley had the initial conversations about the guidelines/policy with the school district’s attorney, Joe Holland. PER STEVE’S STATEMENT,

Paul Deaton said...

While the ICCSD is a large entity with a large budget, it is no governing body like a city, and electing a superintendent makes no sense. Any board should want the ability to fire their superintendent if he/she demonstrates incompetence, or behaves in a criminal manner relative to operating the schools.
The democratic process is in the election of school board members, who then hire/fire a superintendent or as in the case of the ICCSD come to contract terms for a specified period of time.

Julie VanDyke said...

"How is it that aspects of democracy that are unremarkable in other contexts seem so alien to the world of K-12 education? What is it about education and democracy that doesn’t mix?"

Chris, City Government/administration and K-12 board/superintendent & administration have one thing in common: the same wish to avoid personal responsibility for the choice made.

It seems to me that when they want to execute an unpopular idea, or ban a voice of opposition, they take on the form of a firing squad. One where the public is often not allowed to know which of them have blanks and which have bullets. That strategy allows them to enact guidelines and policy as a group in which the responsibility for the choice becomes so diluted they can all hold their hands up in the air after the murder and blame it on the group instead of on the ones with the real bullets. Only they are allowed to "know" which of them have real bullets. Sometimes they even seem to switch guns under the table to tag-team take down opposition to the choice made so they can all hold up their hands and say, gosh, it wasn't me. Even if one or two voice dissent or concerns prior to vote, but then follow that with a block vote approving they willingly step up and take one of the guns to help hide, dilute, the responsibility beyond visible recognition.

Put the theory to a two level test like this: 1)Do any of them take full responsibility for their individual actions after a group block vote in a meaningful way. 2) Do they hold themselves to the same level of accountability as they hold those public speakers or opinions they group voted as a block to silence? The only time they really do that is when they voice clear and specific dissent or concern followed by a vote that goes against the rest of the firing squat, um, I mean, block voting group.

Chris said...

Thanks for all the comments!

Paul – I’m not seeing the distinction. There are almost certainly lots of strong-mayor towns in which the city administration is a less complicated affair than running the ICCSD is, and many major cities in which unelected superintendents run operations that are far more complicated than running our city administration is. Why is running a school district administration that different from running a city administration? And even if it’s true that it’s harder to run a city administration, why wouldn’t that mean that the need for a “professional” is greater? I think the fact that school superintendents are never elected tells us something about the way our society thinks of education, and I still wonder about the weird aversion to democracy that the issue of school governance seems to bring out.

Matt – To me, that just makes me wonder all the more about why we treat school districts so differently than other governmental units. Can you imagine a law saying that you couldn’t elect someone mayor unless he or she had some special license or credential?

Pooter – I don’t know the answers to those questions about the history of Iowa City’s form of government. As for politicization, I don’t think that’s really a function of whether the superintendent is elected or appointed, as maybe the Regents example shows. I think the position is just as politicized either way, but that if the superintendent were elected, it would at least be politicized in a way that would bear more of a relationship to what the community wants.

Julie – I do think that electing the superintendent would make it harder for school officials to pass the buck. As it stands, the board feels it has draw the line at “setting policy” and be hands-off about “implementation.” But a whole lot of important decisions fall under “implementation,” so the distinction really just serves to insulate the school bureaucracy from what the community wants. If both the policy-setters and the chief implementer were elected, it would be easier for voters to hold someone responsible for what actually happens in their school system, and easier for the community to translate its values into a school system that reflects them.

Anonymous said...

Public funding of education vs Public administration of education is rarely discussed.
The GI bill is public funding of education with individual choice playing a significant role in the outcome for the individual supported by the public funds.
Schools compete to provide services to GI bill supported students. Lack of service on the part of the college will result in loss of the student.
Publicly supported colleges as well as private colleges compete for the GI bill supported students.
Propose a similar funding mechanism for K-12 students and you hate children and teachers.
Public administration of schools creates a legal monopoly (marginally publicly administered monopoly). Monopolies, legal or otherwise, resist competition and usually provide lower rates of innovation and customer service.
We have unresponsive, poorly performing schools because they are monopolies.

Chris said...

Anonymous: I agree with pretty much all of that, at least in theory. I don’t doubt that a school that has to compete in the market for students will have to be responsive to what the community wants in a way that current public schools just don’t. But I still can’t work up much enthusiasm for any of the school choice proposals I’ve heard of, for these reasons:

1. A lot of current “choice” proposals are not interested in real choice. Instead, they want to force all schools to operate on the same assumptions about what the goals of education should be, and to allow competition only within very narrow boundaries. Most of those “choices” are very unappealing to me. (See this post.)

2. There are geographic constraints on how much choice you can really make available to people. Nobody wants to drive their kids an hour each way to school. Unless you live in a very densely populated area (Manhattan?), you’re going to have a pretty limited number of options within a reasonable distance. Rural towns might struggle to support even two choices. The poorer you are, the harder it might be to choose a school that your kid would have to be driven to, while people with more money would have more options. There are also barriers to entry—starting a school is no easy task, and requires at a minimum a critical mass of enrollees—that make it hard for new schools to spring up wherever people happen to be less than satisfied with their existing choices. Realistically I think you’d end up pretty far from the “competitive market” ideal.

3. As you point out, there is still the question of how to fund the schools. If you use some kind of voucher system, I’d worry that there would inevitably be downward pressure on the amount of the vouchers. As long as “public school” attracts a big swath of the population, there is at least a constituency in any given community for funding the schools at a decent level. Once everyone is attending what is essentially a private school, a lot more people may decide that they’re better off keeping taxes low and then using the savings to supplement their vouchers. The result would be that the more money you have, the better a school you could buy. That’s true to some extent even now, of course, but I do think the collective nature of the public schools counteracts that effect to some extent.

4. I think it’s important for the country to have a large, thriving middle class. I’d be afraid that in a purely competitive system we’d end up with a lot more non-unionized, poorly paid teachers with no job security. Teachers make up a pretty good chunk of the middle class, and I think that outcome would be bad for the country, separate and apart from its effect on education (which probably wouldn’t be positive, either). I know that teacher employment should never be the main purpose of the school system, and that there are costs to the inflexibility that comes with union labor, but I do think we’re better off living in a country where more people are well-paid and have decent job security, and I’m worried about the effects of taking those things away from a very big chunk of the middle class.

Rather than market-driven choice, I’m more attracted to the idea of greatly decentralizing school policy. If it were up to me, school districts would have much more latitude to pursue their own visions of education, and the state and the federal government would stay out of it (except to ensure equalized funding). A district could even reap some of the benefits that would come from competition by allowing schools within the district to operate on different visions and granting intra-district transfers liberally. Anyway, I think we could go a long way toward making people more satisfied with their public schools without actually removing them from public governance.