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Opponents' arguments show why board reform must come

Today the Louisiana House of Representatives takes up HB 851, designed to place some limitations on discretion of school board members, with the best advertisement for bill passage being the intellect displayed on this matter by self-proclaimed representatives of the boards.

Essentially, the bill would address two areas. First, it would make the formal hiring and firing of a superintendant a two-thirds rather than simple majority vote. Second, after 2010, personnel hiring decisions will be transferred solely into the hands of the superintendant, although tenure and salary matters would be left to the boards.

These have stirred up incredible opposition from consultants employed by and officers past and present of the Louisiana School Board Association, even though the state’s head of education Paul Pastorek and some other past and current school board members and superintendants have said this measure would reduce individual board member meddling in personnel matters and gives superintendants more protection in pursuing these matters without boards threatening to can them. Proponents very reasonably argue that political interference can create performance problems that plague Louisiana education.

But the opponents react as if the world is going to end with these changes and, worse, they condone illogic if not outright idiocy in their arguments against them. The latest involve, first, the claim that the two-thirds requirement violates the “one man, one vote” concept, called a cherished concept of democracy. To assert such betrays an ignorance of what the entire concept is. This refers to efforts to ensure that artificial boundaries, such as non-compelling reasons to prevent eligible citizens to vote or that districts are formed to favor certain populations over others in their abilities to influence elections, do not exist in the electoral process. In fact, supermajoritarian requirements are not uncommon in government on the issue of officeholders, the best known example perhaps being the two-thirds vote required to remove any civil officer of the United States by the Senate after House impeachment.

A better argument about this requirement would be that it permits minority interests to prevent hirings and firings of superintendants. One could say a simple majority should be enough to accomplish these things. However, another ignored passage of the bill moots this concern in its entirety: that contracts offered to superintendants are subject to simple majority decisions. In other words, let’s say there is a situation where a 12-member board has seven who want to fire a superintendant which under the proposed law could not be done. The solution then would be to wait until contract renegotiation comes around, and the seven could offer such an unfavorable contract to the incumbent that he will resign.

Opponents of the bill never bring this up because it destroys their argument that the bill would remove “checks and balances” in the system. All a simple majority of the board has to do is give contracts that last a couple of years or so, and they have all the flexibility they need to get rid of superintendants they sour on without a lengthy period elapsing. At the same time, it means that a superintendant has greater protection to do necessary but unpopular things if he wants to risk his job by displeasing a simple majority.

The opposition also claims that the changes are not needed because of improving performance of schools statewide. There are two fallacies in this thinking, one being that because the whole improves does not mean that improvement is occurring in all of the parts, and it may be the issue of meddling which is preventing better performance in these places. It also runs afoul of the fallacy of monism, that all change in an observable phenomenon is attributed to one single cause. Performance is affected by many things, and it could be that it would have improved even more without meddling permitted in current law.

It’s little wonder Louisiana education is relatively abysmal compared to other states’ and some countries when this is the quality of critical thinking of those elected to oversee it at the local level. Which perhaps is the best reason why HB 851 should pass.

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