Democracy and Efficiency (part I)


The Madison School Board has drawn fire from Progressive Dane for a proposed policy change regarding public appearances.

The change would limit public commentary preceding school board meetings to agenda items. Individuals who want to speak on issues that are not part of the agenda would be required to speak after the business portion of the meeting was complete….

[Board of Education President, Arlene] Silveira objected to characterizing the change as an effort to limit public discussion or input.

“That is simply not true. This has been a discussion about trying to find a solution to a problem in getting the work done we were elected to do. Under this proposal, people can certainly speak on non-agenda items, just not before we begin our business meetings,” she said.

Susan Troller Capital Times, February 9, 2008 (emphasis added)

We need to move beyond the unsupportable assertions that the proposed public appearances policy revision does not limit public input (however slightly) and start asking if the new limits are an acceptable trade-off for increased efficiency.

In democratic governance there is almost always a trade-off between efficiency and democracy. More participatory structures tend to be less efficient (there are some ways of gaining efficiency that have little impact on participation and some ways of enhancing participation that have little impact on efficiency; I will touch on some of these in part II). This extends beyond opportunities for the public to vote, petition or make our voice heard to questions of balance concerning the proper breadth or shape of the responsibilities claimed by or ceded to the public, elected officials and appointed professional administrators. Among democratic systems, the least democratic structures give the most responsibility and power to those at the farthest remove from the public, professional administrators.

In school governance at one end of the spectrum would be the annual school meeting, which vested comprehensive powers in the voters who attended. At the other end would probably be the mayoral appointed superintendents given sweeping powers (Michelle Rhee in Washington DC is a recent example).

These have been live issues since at least the Progressive Era. In that period those who favored efficiency over democracy, often called “administrative progressives,” mostly triumphed, creating what historian David Tyack called “The One Best System.” Most of the histories of these conflicts focus on the winners. As a historian and an activist I have always been more attracted to their opponents, unstable coalitions of intellectuals (John Dewey for one), women’s groups, unions, Populists, Socialists, teachers, and partisan politicians who resisted what William George Bruce (Milwaukee Democratic politician – who opposed partisan politics in school governance, these coalitions were very unstable and strange –, school board member and founder of the American School Board Journal) called “Educational Czarism.” They had their victories too.

Almost everyone involved had some claim to the label “progressive.” This points to a dilemma in progressivism, then and now. Progressives have faith that politics and government can work for the common good and in order to accomplish this — to advance the common good — government must be efficient. Progressives with a democratic orientation also value democratic structures and wide participation, which make efficiency harder to achieve. This is the dilemma presented by the proposed limit on public appearances concerning non-agenda items.

The conflicts over school governance were and are entwined with conflicts over the purposes of schooling. For the most part Progressive Ea efficiency advocates emphasized the role of the schools in training workers and their opponents were more concerned with education for personal growth and citizenship. This is a gross oversimplification in that both sides favored some form of industrial or vocational education and the conflicts were about who would control it (some of the administrative progressives were happy to have private industry directly in charge) and what forms it would take (manual training was viewed as promoting personal development while vocational education was often seen as an effort to recreate inequalities in the name of “social efficiency”). Still, I think it is important to bring up as a reminder that the structures of education are related to what is taught, constituting a hidden curriculum. The lesson of limiting public appearances is that to some degree the priorities of the Board of Education take precedence over the concerns of the public. This has to be part of the discussion too.

Historically the structures and aims of education in Madison have had a relatively good balance between efficiency and democracy. I would like to see it stay that way.

As I said earlier, I would like to see this proposal set aside and have the Board and the public together tackle the broad questions of balance between efficiency and public participation. I’ve got some specific suggestions that will be included in part II of this post (as soon as I find the time to draft that…need to work on my own efficiency). I am going to close this post with some outlines of what I am talking about.

I would like to see a wider consideration of Board practices, some documentation about how much time has been spent on various tasks (including but not limited to off topic public testimony) and a variety of solutions evaluated, solutions that address “problems” confined to what the Board does as well as solutions involving the public perhaps changing our behavior too.

Whatever the results, I think that this has to be an issue that Board engages the public on. I am very glad that there now will be an opportunity for the public the weigh in on February 18, prior to the vote. That is a start, but however the vote goes, the larger dilemmas of democracy and efficiency aren’t going to go away. Rejecting the proposal could lead to constructive cooperation and creative solutions, enacting it will exacerbate distrust and resentments.


Thomas J. Mertz

For further reading:

David B. Tyack, The One Best System: A History of American Urban Education.

William J. Reese, Power and the Promise of School Reform: Grass Roots Movements During the Progressive Era.

Raymond E. Callahan, Education and the Cult of Efficiency.

Robert B. Westbrook, John Dewey and American Democracy.


Filed under Accountability, AMPS, Best Practices, education, Local News, Take Action

2 responses to “Democracy and Efficiency (part I)

  1. Pingback: Mayors and CEOs (Chief Educational Officers), Oh My (Oh No) « AMPS

  2. Pingback: How Should the MMSD Board of Education Operate? | AMPS

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