Monday, April 9, 2007

Union Label on the Ballot Box

I've referenced this piece in past articles, but I thought it might be a timely link:

Hoover Institution: Union Label on the Ballot Box (Spring, 2006)

Terry M. Moe is professor of political science at Stanford University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. The studies presented here are adapted from an article in the Spring 2006 issue of the Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization and from Besieged: School Boards and the Future of Education Politics, edited by William G. Howell.

I wanted to pull a few good quotes, but I found so many that I decided to pull the first few paragraphs! For anyone watching this stuff, you'll find your head nodding so much you'll feel like a school board trustee! :-)

==> Mike.


From their origins in the 19th century until the present day, school boards have been regarded as shining examples of local democracy, the keystone that links public education to ordinary citizens. But this is one of the enduring myths of American folklore. The reality is that, while some 96 percent of school boards are elected (according to data collected by Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute), these elections are usually low-turnout, low-interest affairs in which the vast majority of ordinary citizens play no role at all. Special interests, well organized and largely unchecked by the public, often have ample opportunity to engineer outcomes in their own favor.

This is not a good thing for children or schools, but there is nothing surprising about it. Americans are apathetic about almost all aspects of politics; they’re just more apathetic about school-board politics. School-board elections are often held at odd times, when no other offices—particularly major ones, like president or governor—are being voted on. Moreover, roughly two-thirds of registered voters are not parents of school-age children and so have only weak incentives to pay attention or participate. To make matters worse, the vast majority of these elections, about 89 percent (according to Hess), are nonpartisan; and without party labels to guide them, most voters have no information about the various candidates running for multiple board seats, and so are confused and even more uninterested than they would normally be.

Who Cares?

But apathy stops at the schoolhouse door. One group of local citizens—teachers and other employees of the school district—has an intense interest in everything the district does: how much money it spends, how the money is allocated, how hiring and firing are handled, what work rules are adopted, how the curriculum is determined, which schools are to be opened and closed, and much more. The livelihoods of these people are fully invested in the schools, and they have a far greater material stake in the system than do any other members of the community.

As individuals, then, district employees have strong incentives to get involved in school-board politics and to take action in trying to elect candidates who will promote their occupational interests. The things they want are simple and straightforward—and have nothing to do, at least directly or intentionally, with quality education. They want job security. They want higher wages and fringe benefits. They want better retirement packages. They want work rules that restrict managerial control. They want bigger budgets and higher taxes.

School employees have the additional advantage of being well organized. Unlike parents and other citizens, who are typically atomized and ineffectual as political forces, most school employees are represented by unions. Many of these employee unions get engaged in school affairs. But among them, the teacher unions are almost always the most active and powerful, and they generally take the lead in championing the cause of employee interests in politics.
In school-board elections, the incentives of the teacher unions are strong and clear. If they can wield clout at the polls, they can determine who sits on local school boards—and in so doing, they can literally choose the very “management” they will be bargaining with. (Private sector unions, which square off against independent management teams, can only dream of such a thing.) These same elected board members, moreover, will make decisions on a gamut of policy issues, from budgets to curriculum to student discipline, that teachers have a stake in and can benefit from enormously. Under the circumstances, it would be irrational for the unions not to get actively involved in school-board elections.

They have the resources, moreover, to do just that. While unions are nominally collective bargaining organizations, they can readily turn their organizations toward political ends. They also have guaranteed sources of money (member dues) for financing campaigns, paid staff to coordinate political activities, and activist members to do the invaluable trench-work of campaigning. For these and related reasons, the unions have major advantages over other groups, which can often translate into electoral power.

I encourage you to follow this link and read on!

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