Accountability: The Taxpayers’ Return on Investment

Democratic accountability is achieved through the electoral process by enabling the local taxpayers to elect their local board of education and to vote whether to accept or reject the local school annual operating budget.  This electoral process enables taxpayers to control the stewards of their local schools, the members of the board of education, and through this process the level of property taxes levied and how these tax revenues are allocated.  It helps to assure taxpayers that their duly elected representatives, the members of the board of education, will allocate their school district’s financial and human resources according to local priorities.  The locally elected board of education, in turn, makes sure that the local schools meet or exceed local needs and priorities.


Accountability is the means by which taxpayers can determine whether they are getting a proper return on investment from their investment in public education, their property taxes, by exercising local control.  Taxpayers benefit from having input into determining those educational programs and services on which their money is spent.  They are more strongly committed to and involved with their neighborhood schools because their children as well as those of potential buyers of their homes can also attend the local school within the district.  The process of enabling taxpayers to control local school funding, governance and educational content increases their willingness to fund their local schools because they can see and influence how their money is spent.  Based on these concepts, home rule or local control was established and has thrived.


The tradition of local control not only is rooted in our democratic principles but also symbolizes our democracy in action.  Local control enables our schools to be self-governing instead of being controlled remotely by a governmental entity that imposes its political agenda rather than supporting local priorities and needs.  Remote governing bodies, therefore, are not accountable to the standards necessary for local schools to provide quality education.


A top-down, state dominated educational system is contrary to our democratic principles.  Increased control by the state whether directly or indirectly through state politically appointed county departments of education such as in New Jersey means less local control because control is a zero sum game.  As such, every increase in state power can only result from a corresponding loss at the local level. 


A governance model based on state control results in a traditional military-type command-and-control decision-making process.  This is contrary to a true democratic process that supports local school districts and fosters the active participation of parents with their willingness to fund public education.  In a command-and-control model, state level policy makers develop the strategy for policy implementation and combine this strategy with their political directives to determine the priorities and budgetary process for each school district. 


The typical one-size-fits-all approach removes decision making authority from those most affected by educational policy decisions:  the students, parents, taxpayers, administrators, teachers, school and district.  It also concentrates policy formulation and decision making at a centralized level where special interest groups have greater leverage over the policy makers and, as a result, greater control over legislation affecting education including school budgets and funding as well as programs and services.  A school’s annual operating budget is the financial representation of the school’s educational plan.  State control of the local school budgetary process, particularly the allocation of financial and human resources, means that the state can impose its own agenda and prevent local districts from acting according to local educational needs.


In a typical centralized state model local taxpayers lose control over how their money is allocated because decisions are made remotely and without local input.  In addition, local boards of education even though they serve as unpaid volunteers are often abolished or rendered virtual rubber stamps of the state department of education under the guise of saving money and increasing accountability.  Special interest groups have a disproportionate say in the local allocation of educational funds distributed by the state.  Indeed, the allocation process seems to be based more on special interest group political calculus than on local educational needs.  Because the approval and allocation process at the state level tends to be much more convoluted than those at the local level and more powerful special interests are involved, significant amounts of aid authorized for education seemingly do not make it ultimately to the local level.


Concentrating decision-making power at the local district level rather than at the state level enables more resources to be focused on those most affected by education and enables those most involved in providing education to provide better instruction.  State control causes local school districts to spend less time on students as well as parents because more time is required to be spent on state imposed bureaucratic obligations and requirements.  As a result, parental engagement decreases which harms student achievement because parental involvement is a key component supporting student performance.  The local school district not only is closest to the students, parents, teachers, and taxpayers but also has the necessary expertise to most effectively decide how to provide a quality education and to generate the necessary local taxpayer support for the public funding of public education.




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