Citizens of Texas, What’s the Problem?

Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s appointment of Donna Bahorich to chair the Texas State Board of Education “is a puzzlement” to many—just as the wise King in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s brilliant play The King and I once said.

Citizens of Texas, What's the Problem? by Regina Paul - Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s appointment of Donna Bahorich to chair the Texas State Board of Education “is a puzzlement” to many...A member of the Board since 2013, conservative Republican Bahorich, a former staffer for the Lt. Governor, has been on the Board just long enough to anger some of the more liberal Texans who did not agree with her votes on a number of issues, including the adoption of textbooks called into question for their take on American history, according to Texas newspapers. But the real kicker for many is the fact that Bahorich first homeschooled her own kids and then sent them to private high schools. What qualifies her to lead the governing board responsible for the State’s public schools, her critics ask?

That is a puzzlement for some Texas leaders of both parties and, doubtless, for lots of Texas taxpayers as well. For me, the puzzlement is not about Bahorich herself—partly because I have not done enough research on her qualifications and past votes and personal values. For me, the puzzlement is about who was intended to govern our schools when school boards were established as the governing structure for public schools in the U.S.

As I have written before, this kind of lay governance of public education by our citizens is an almost unique idea worldwide. Yes, Canadians use it, and the British use a version of it. But that’s about it. We have believed, as a nation, that our citizens—read, taxpayers—should ultimately be in charge of our government agencies and systems, including education. We elect representatives to be in charge on our behalf—at the federal level, at the state level, and at the local level, including members of boards of education (at least where the system is working right). By “be in charge,” I mean set policies and evaluate the results of those policies, as carried out by the professionals working every day in those government agencies.

In Texas, the State Board of Education consists of 15 members duly elected from districts across the state. Bahorich was elected from State Board of Education District 6, which comprises nine school districts in Harris County, including Houston, in whole or in part. So far, so good. The governor then appoints one member to chair the Board. He recently appointed Bahorich (who was subject to confirmation by the Texas Senate), as was his right and duty. So far, so good?

I guess so. Why do I say “I guess”? Because I can honestly see the point of those who wonder (to put it gently) whether someone without a personal commitment to the public education system is best able to lead it. Would Bahorich’s critics have felt the same way if Governor Abbott had appointed a single woman who had no children to chair the Board? I imagine that they would not have, even though that hypothetical single woman would not necessarily have made a personal commitment to the public education system, either.

Maybe the problem is that homeschooling (followed by private schooling) implies an actual rejection of public education and perhaps of the values it is built on and perhaps of the children and families it serves. I get that. But maybe the problem is the voters of Harris County who put Bahorich on the Board in the first place—that is, taxpaying voters who saw it differently and were not concerned about how she educated her own kids.

So, the system worked the way it was supposed to—for better or worse. Yes, not every citizen likes every elected official, for whatever reason. Those citizens who are not happy with Governor Abbott’s choice should think hard when it comes time to elect the next governor and, indeed, when it comes time to elect the next State Board of Education member from their home district. And they should campaign hard for gubernatorial and Board candidates who will make different decisions that are more to their liking. Just in case.

“What It Makes Is Democracy”— An Open Note to Chicagoans

I was inspired to write this note by blogger Marilyn Rhames’s “Open Letter to Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis” (Charting My Own Course in Education Week Teacher, March 2, 2015).  In it, she thoughtfully offers her own opinions on the current mayoral race in Chicago—both its issues and its past and present players. 

9Some years ago, Mitch Brickell and I wrote a book for school board members based on his lifetime of work educating tens of thousands of school board members around the country.  We opened with this statement:

The most remarkable thing about our remarkable country is this:  Ordinary citizens control almost every major public institution.  No matter how many expert professionals are on the payroll, they do not have the last word.  Somewhere above them, above the top of the pyramid of experts, is a group of civilians.  They have the last word.  They are not as expert as the experts, but they have the last word.  They may know less about the operations than anyone on the payroll.  Still, they have the last word.

Does this make sense?  What it makes is democracy.  Government of the people, by the people, for the people.  We, the people, govern ourselves.  The professional experts do not govern us.  We govern them; they serve us.

This is a particularly American idea.  It may be the most American idea of all.  No nation uses it more.  It is our favorite form of governance.  We use it for villages, townships, cities, counties, states, regions, the nation.  We use it for sewers, police, roads, firefighting, rivers, libraries, prisons, forests, the military—every government function, without exception; all staffed by experts, without exception; and all governed by civilians.

With a bow to my good friends and colleagues in the U.K., which has its own long and strong tradition of school governors, I can say that I am proud of our American idea of “citizen governors”—whether they are city council members, state governors, members of Congress, the president, or school board members.  All are elected by the people to govern the people.

And that brings us to Chicago.  There is so much in the news right now about Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s upcoming runoff with Jesus “Chuy” Garcia on April 7 and, perhaps surprisingly, their education platforms have been one focus of those news stories.  While there are several education issues being debated—including school closings and a teacher strike—the issue closest to my heart is Chicago’s school board.  Emanuel wants to continue his mayor-appointed board, and Garcia promises to propose and promote the establishment of an elected board (the state legislature and governor would have to agree to change the law for Garcia to make good on his promise).

I am taken back to one simple sentence in the opening pages of our book:  “What it makes is democracy.”  That is hard to argue with.  I am sure that there are many political and intellectual and practical arguments in favor of an appointed school board, and I am sure that some are persuasive.  But is any argument as persuasive as this one:  Citizens voting for the individuals who will govern their lives is the way we run our country.

Good luck on April 7, Chicagoans.