In his admiring 1830s study, Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, “The selectmen are elected every year, in the month of March or April. The town meeting chooses at the same time a multitude of other town officers who are entrusted with important administrative functions.” Tocqueville called municipal institutions “the strength of free nations.”
Admittedly, as a student I found his writings dry and not particularly interesting. As a government teacher, I did not spend much time acquainting my students with his book. My bad. Of course, I am the same guy who is still mocked by his wife for, after sitting through 3 hours of watching Maximus and Wolverine sing to Bruce Wayne’s girlfriend in the “movie” Les Miserables, said, “Holy Cow, all they did was sing.” I enjoy French toast, but the rest of French culture is lost on me, apparently.
So here is the plot summary from Democracy in America, (you can sing it if you want). At a time when the French were recovering from rolling heads down the streets and trying to figure out a way to make democracy work, Tocqueville came to America to see what made it work so well over here.
What he learned is that democracy closest to the people is the most effective. He said, “town meetings are to liberty what primary schools are to science; they bring it within the people’s reach, they teach men how to use and how to enjoy it.” The current Kansas Republican party took a page from his book with their platform plank, “We believe that the most effective, responsible and responsive government is the one closest to the people.”
American municipal government is still the most effective, responsible and responsive government in the world. So why do some members of the legislature want to encroach on local decision-making by moving elections, injecting party politics, and further disrupting the process?
The Chair and Vice Chair of the House Elections Committee have been adamant that their only goal is to increase voter turnout. This is a worthy goal and one that deserves consideration. This is something that KASB believes deserve further study. We need to look at county and school district voting records, consider what other states do or have done, and look at evidence related to other possible means for increasing turnout such as Saturday voting and expanded voter registration efforts.
Other committee members, members of the house and senate, and party leaders have offered different goals. The only proponent of these bills clearly stated the goal is to: 1. Move elections to the fall of even numbered years; 2. Make all local government (including school boards) partisan; and, 3. To give precinct leaders the power to replace vacancies on boards and commissions.
These goals are a clear effort to inject state and national level partisanship into what Tocqueville called “the strength of free nations.” He warned about “transient passions and the interests of the hour” interfering with local government and moving toward us toward a “despotic tendency.” In a more modern vernacular, he meant the state and national interests will try to interfere with local governance, and he was right.
Clearly, local school boards are one of our purest forms of government. School board members labor for no pay. They have no financial interest. They meet at least once a month and face their constituents, their friends and neighbors, on their home ground. They make tough decisions which sometimes cost them friends and business, and all the while trying to do what is best for students in the most efficient manner possible.
Interfering with this system of governance should not be done without great thought, analysis, and planning. It should not be done for partisan reasons, but only if it can be proven to improve a system that has been working since the early 1800s.