What Tocqueville can teach us about school-board elections

October 24, 2011

Alexis de Tocqueville “foresaw some of the influences that have transformed the national government from a constitutional republic into a welfare-state administered by a bureaucracy and a technocratic elite,” writes Bill Evers, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

Likewise, during the Progressive Era (from the 1890s to the First World War), Progressive politicians transformed municipalities and school districts to put bureaucracies and technocratic specialists in charge. In the case of school districts, this was done through nonpartisan elections, district boundaries that did not match other jurisdictions, holding school elections at times other than that of the General Election, discouraging school boards from participating in curriculum issues, and granting extensive power to local superintendents (similar to that granted to city managers in the same era).

Some people still have a romantic, outdated image of school districts and local boards. Today, they are not the school committees that Tocqueville saw, but rather, to a large degree, creatures of the Progressive Era. If we want to change that and reinvigorate school boards, we will have to restore avenues for popular participation of the sort Tocqueville sought. For example, Indiana recently put school elections in November, when more people vote.

As I’ve written before, it’s time for Oklahoma to move its school-board elections to November.

Update: I’ve gotten some good feedback on this post. One reader suggested creating a high-profile election date (November of odd-numbered years, for example) on which to hold all school and municipality elections. And the folks at Professional Oklahoma Educators reminded me that in 2009 they surveyed their members on this question (“Should school board elections be held in November at the same time as general elections?”). Of the 600 responses, 508 of POE members (85 percent) said yes.