School governance: cut bureaucracy, not democracy
By Susan Clark
Commentary | March 16,2014
The House Education Committee is proposing legislation that would dramatically limit citizens’ voices in decision making, now and in the future.
While claims of cost savings or educational benefits have yet to be convincing, the proposal has unintended consequences that could touch every element of Vermont life. In fact, it could do more than any in recent history to jeopardize Vermont democracy.
The proposal would do away with local school boards. In their place, each town would send one representative to a regional board that would oversee multiple schools. Town Meeting Day school deliberations would be replaced by a single ballot on a monolithic budget. New “citizen advisory panels” would have no decision-making power.
Would it be less democratic? Absolutely. Schools are at the heart of Vermont’s communities. And slowly but inexorably, citizens’ perception of school governance would go from being a “we” to a “they.”
Vt.’s Unique Strengths
Vermont is currently among the richest in “social capital” in America: our communities are solution-oriented, high in volunteerism, and tolerant of differences.
Local governance, including our school and town meetings, may be the reason. We know, for instance, that five of the six New England states, the only places in America where town meetings are practiced, rank in the top ten for civil society. Vermont often ranks first.
The House committee’s proposal is based on bigger-is-better, hierarchical thinking. This outdated model silences the complexity of voices, and proposes consolidation and one-size-fits-all solutions — a holdover from the Industrial Revolution.
But today’s voters are veterans of the Open-Source Revolution. Gone are the days of top-down control; welcome to networked citizens with extraordinary online research and organizing abilities. Governments now need to treat citizens as collaborative equals, working less like a hierarchy and more like a wiki. Reliance on “experts” is giving way to decentralized, bottom-up strategies that reward innovation and information sharing.
This puts Vermont ahead of the curve. In fact, Vermont’s traditional decision-making is a model for rebuilding civic institutions. In New York City, Chicago and California, new “Participatory Budgeting” systems hand decision-making power directly to citizens in local wards and districts. Strikingly similar to our town and school meetings, participatory budgeting has swept the globe and is deemed a “good governance practice” by the UN. Its small-scale power-sharing model is designed to awaken precisely the kind of engagement we take for granted in Vermont.
Our vibrant community fabric is Vermont’s strongest asset. Vermont is uniquely poised: We can offer globally networked learning while celebrating a vibrant sense of place. We can provide our students with both roots and wings.
What would we lose?
New studies find additional surprising dividends to citizen-powered decision making.
Economic strength: Many researchers have noticed a link between citizen involvement and local economies. For instance, a 2011 National Conference on Citizenship report showed a correlation between citizen engagement and community resilience against unemployment.
Responsiveness in crisis: Researchers note that engaged communities are more effective in emergencies. When a community’s physical infrastructure is swept away (like with Irene and Sandy) it reveals another layer of community — its civic infrastructure. In Vermont during Irene, civic infrastructure meant an outpouring of volunteers, readily mobilized by experienced citizen-leaders. One of the lowest-cost ways to prepare for crises — whether meteorological, social, or political – is to strengthen community engagement.
Citizen responsibility: Direct, deliberative democracy can change us personally. Research on juries shows that empowered deliberation measurably increases voting rates. And more: it often increases volunteerism; it inspires many to follow the news; it can strengthen our sense of community and respect; and it can improve our receptivity to new information, allowing new solutions to emerge.
Deep bench: One-third of the Vermont legislature has served in local office. Here’s where we learn agenda setting, listening, and compromise – in other words, leadership. Whether Democrat or Republican, legislators take note: school boards are not your enemy. They are your farm team.
So what should we do?
Another coalition of legislators proposes engaging Vermont citizens in assessing their educational values and priorities. Burlington’s may look different from the Northeast Kingdom’s, but that’s okay. Think creativity, not uniformity; networks, not hierarchy. New webs can improve equity, accountability, and resource sharing, while maintaining local power to find and implement local solutions.
From the Statehouse, local decision-making may look messy. But given the Internet and Millennial generation thinking, this is the reality of a well-informed, engaged electorate.
Today’s citizens may appear less governable. But: they’re much better at self-governance. The job in Montpelier, then, is to create systems to let them do it.
Susan Clark is a community facilitator and co-author of “Slow Democracy: Rediscovering Community, Bringing Decision Making Back Home.” She lives in Middlesex.