The idea that “the government closest to the people serves the people best” is a founding principle of America’s democratic republic and a longstanding keystone of conservative philosophy in particular.
Ronald Reagan, always a champion of local governance, emphasized the special importance of this idea in education when he said, “It is in our homes, where parents guide their children, and in our communities, where local school boards know their own areas’ needs, that responsibility for running our schools has always rested, as it should.”
The pending move in the General Assembly to seize control of decision-making in South Carolina’s local schools is a troubling repudiation of this long-standing ideal. It is also an exceptionally bad idea, both in principle and in practical effect.
The legislation under consideration in the Senate would allow the governor to remove entire boards of ailing districts and allow South Carolina’s superintendent of education to take control of their schools for an undetermined period. When the intervention has accomplished its goals and the state superintendent deems the districts ready, he or she and the governor would appoint their own boards to continue governing schools for an additional three years, at which time democracy would be slowly restored to the voters, one board seat per year at a time. In fact, the process could take more than 10 years depending on the size of the board.
It’s an appalling proposal from the standpoint of democratic principle. No other elected body in South Carolina is faced with the prospect of wholesale removal.
The school governance system set out in state law places the management of schools in the hands of board members chosen directly by the community’s voters, who trust these leaders to make decisions in the best interests of their children.
Overturning their choices — invalidating elections and replacing duly elected leaders with state-selected appointees — is a disastrous proposition in a country founded on self-governance, where the vote is sacred. It wipes out democracy and replaces it with something that is decidedly not.
It also reflects an unsettling conclusion that voters can’t be trusted to choose their own leaders. That’s much more than just an odd statement for elected officials to make. It’s a position that flies in the face of American values and is soundly disproved by the greatness of the American experiment.
Abandoning voter control for any reason at all is dicey business in a democracy and cause enough for legislators to reject this proposal. But the principle it upends is based on practical considerations that also make the plan a bad idea.
South Carolina’s local school boards exist specifically so that voters have a voice in the management of their schools. School boards meet publicly to hire and evaluate the district superintendent and manage annual budgets, millage rates, district and school leadership, instructional personnel and a host of other issues that affect the quality of their schools. They are required to operate in the sunshine, holding public hearings on issues of particular importance, posting agendas well ahead of meetings and providing minutes.
They are directly accountable to their voters for the quality of the community’s schools.
The accessibility, transparency and accountability afforded by local boards can’t be maintained when schools are run from Columbia, by people who don’t know the community, the parents and the students, have no stake in the community’s success and have no incentive to respond to community concerns.
More importantly, school improvements will never be sustained when they are imposed instead of grown. Suspending democracy — for a short time, as we do now, or a much longer time, as this legislation proposes — won’t change the long-term viability of our schools.
The particular challenges communities face will be there long after state officials have gone home. And so too will the people who live, work and lead in these communities.
If there are issues that need to be addressed, instead of removing school board members, the state should, as part of any education reform initiative, actively involve and assist them in making improvements that lead to success in their schools. By experiencing and being a part of the success, it would create the kind of ownership researchers say is critical for lasting change. This must be the goal our state strives to achieve.
Tony Folk is the 2019 South Carolina School Boards Association president and a member of the Dorchester County School District 4 School Board. The South Carolina School Boards Association, a nonprofit organization, serves as a source of information and as a statewide voice for boards governing the state’s 79 public school districts. Find detailed information at scsba.org.