Category Archives: K12 Democracy

January 4, 2013

Education WeekIn the Dark About Early School Buses
Education Week publishes J.H. Snider’s commentary on school bus scheduling secrecy in K12 public schools.

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January 18, 2012

Pamela Wood, Senator pushes for elected school board, again, Capital, January 18, 2011.

In his latest attempt to promote an elected school board, state Sen. Bryan Simonaire has not one, not two, but three different bills for lawmakers to consider.

The Pasadena Republican thinks it unlikely his colleagues would reject all three bills. Two of them would make changes to the way school board members are picked and the third asks for a nonbinding referendum in which voters could share their preference.

“It’s wrong that people don’t have a voice in the process,” Simonaire said.

Although he presented his ideas yesterday to the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, his colleagues in the county House and Senate delegation will decide the fate of the bills.

Because the bills would affect only Anne Arundel County, they’re subject to the legislative custom of “local courtesy.” A majority of the county’s senators and delegates must support one or more of the bills to win approval from the rest of the General Assembly.

Simonaire thinks at least one of his bills will have support among delegates; Del. Tony McConkey, R-Severna Park, is sponsoring identical bills in the House of Delegates.

The senators are another matter. Simonaire’s past attempts to promote an elected school board have fallen short among the county’s five senators.

Sen. Ed Reilly, R-Crofton, publicly offered his support on Tuesday.

“I fully agree that things need to change, that it needs to be more responsive to the citizens,” Reilly said.

Simonaire said he’s lobbying to win support from a least one of the three other senators who represent parts of the county: John C. Astle of Annapolis, Ed DeGrange Sr. of Glen Burnie and Jim Rosapepe of College Park.

Anne Arundel’s system for selecting school board members has been in place since 2007.

A School Board Nominating Commission picks potential school board members, whose names are sent to the governor.

Once the governor appoints board members from the list and they’re in office, they are subject to a retention vote during the next election.

If a school board member is knocked out of office during a retention vote, the process starts over again.

Simonaire said the current system doesn’t allow for true public input into who would be best to serve on the school board.

As an example, he pointed to the fact that Democrats dominate the school board, while Republicans have majorities among the County Council and the House of Delegates.

According to county Board of Elections statistics, the voter registration breakdown in Anne Arundel is 43 percent Democrats, 37 percent Republicans, 19 percent unaffiliated and 1 percent belonging to third parties.

“What I’m looking for is a balance and a composition that looks like Anne Arundel County,” he said.

Simonaire has two options for changing the selection process:

Change the process to one similar to the way Circuit Court judges are selected. Board members would still be appointed by the governor from a list submitted by the nominating commission. But when the retention election rolls around, challengers could run against the sitting school board members.

Have seven nonpartisan members elected by voters, plus three members appointed by the governor, the county executive and the County Council, as well as the student member.

Only one person testified during a public hearing. Jim Snider, a parent and education activist from Severna Park, told the committee the bills should include provisions forcing the nominating commission to be more transparent.

Simonaire that said even if he fails to win support in Annapolis, he hopes his cause will gain traction among voters.

“My hope is that it will create a buzz in the community,” he said.

July 6, 2011

Making Public Community Media Accessible
The Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution publishes J.H. Snider’s paper on the need to rethink public policy regarding local public media, especially the design and use of public meeting rooms.  The paper is covered in the Deliberative Democracy Consortium’s newsletter and National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation’s monthly update.

June 14, 2010

Education WeekIt’s the Public’s Data: Democratizing School Board Records
Education Week publishes J.H. Snider’s article on using new information technology to enhance accees to public school board records.

May 30, 2010

The Capital (Annapolis, Maryland)

Troublemaker’ fights secrecy in government
The Capital(Annapolis, Maryland) publishes an article on J.H. Snider’s local open government efforts.

 

 

Eric Hartley, ‘Troublemaker’ fights secrecy in government,” Capital, May 30, 2010, p. C1.

 

Jim Snider has a theory about why it’s often so difficult to get information out of government agencies.

 

It goes like this: “The only people who want information are troublemakers.”

 

This, Snider believes, explains why he was regarded so suspiciously (and charged hundreds of dollars) when he asked for several years’ worth of County Council minutes. What was he up to, anyway?

 

Snider, who lives in Severna Park, is a political scientist by trade. He writes and speaks widely about “e-democracy” and has been a congressional staffer and a fellow at the New America Foundation.

 

Snider, 51, also trains his eye and pen on local politics, particularly the school system and county Board of Education. In his own professorial style, this rumpled academic is a relentless crusader for more information, better organized information and fewer barriers to access.

 

He scoffs at government officials’ excuses and explanations for not making information more accessible. And he exhibits a frank cynicism about their motivations.

 

Snider believes most bureaucrats and elected officials live by a philosophy he paraphrased from German sociologist Max Weber: “The less information you give out, the better off you are, period.”

 

Elected officials and staff deny up and down that they are secretive.

 

Bob Mosier, who as public information officer for county schools is often the target of Snider’s ire, said more things are going on the system’s website, aacps.org, all the time. Just recently, data on achievement, enrollment and out-of-area transfers were added to pages on individual schools in response to parent requests.

 

And Mosier, a former newspaper reporter and editor at The Capital and the Maryland Gazette, said his background as a journalist has led him to push employees to hand over information more readily.

 

What would government officials have to gain by making it difficult? In short, the more information you have, the easier it is to hold government officials accountable.

 

Snider competed for a seat on the school board and one in the House of Delegates, both in 2002. He lost, so he has concentrated on pushing for change as an outsider.

 

He runs a website called iSolon.org, named after the founder of Greek democracy, Solon, a hero of Snider’s. He said he operated his family dinner table as “an academic seminar,” and it showed. Two of his daughters, Pallas and Sage, served as student school board members.

 

Snider is now the vice chairman of the Citizen Advisory Committee, which gives regular reports to the school board.

 

He said he’s frustrated, though not surprised, by the pathetic level of citizen involvement in most civic bodies.

 

The county Board of Education gets to decide how to spend nearly $1 billion a year, yet for the most part only a few regulars show up at meetings. And almost no members of the public show up at the meetings of the School Board Nominating Commission, which picks school board members.

 

Why isn’t there more involvement or more outrage? Mainly because people don’t know what they don’t know.

 

Mosier said his office fields lots of requests for information of all kinds, so Snider is wrong to say only “troublemakers” want information.

 

“We’re getting more and more requests from parents as budgets get tighter and resources get more scarce and parents want to know why my child’s school can’t get funding until 2014,” he said, using a generic example.

 

But aside from reporters and parents with such concerns, the most frequent seekers of information include contractors who want details on construction projects, Mosier said. In other words, it’s mostly people with a vested interest who ask questions.

 

It’s true that a lot of routine information is released. But what about the information Mosier and his colleagues don’t want you to know?

 

Snider said he was once given a quote of $1 million when he requested school employees’ e-mails because he was seeking so many. School officials have said they can only keep most e-mail for 30 days because of technological limitations, and they charge a per-page fee for printouts of requested e-mails rather than providing them electronically.

 

If there was true dedication to openness, none of this would be the case.

 

For example, Google offers a free e-mail service to school systems that archives e-mails essentially forever and allows them to be searched in seconds by key word, date range, sender or recipient. Prince George’s County schools use this service, called Google Apps, in part because it makes it much easier to recover e-mail for investigations or legal discovery.

 

Snider sees some hope. As younger people who live online become parents, they will increasingly see how behind the times their government can be.

 

These issues can seem complicated. But Snider proposed a simple equation: “public = online.”

 

A lot of information is nominally public, but inaccessible in practical terms because of expense or some supposed technological hurdle.

 

If you can’t “Google the school board,” Snider said – and you cannot in any real sense – its work is not truly public.


March 26, 2010

The Capital (Annapolis, Maryland)

Parent school group picks new leaders
Capital article on J.H. Snider’s election as vice chair of Anne Arundel County, Maryland’s Countywide Citizen Advisory Committee with a mandate to use new information technology to improve democratic deliberation among public school parents.

February 19, 2010

International Association of Public ParticipationDeterring Fake Public Participation
The International Journal of Public Participation publishes J.H. Snider’s essay on the growing plague of fake public participation in America.

May 20, 2009

Education WeekDemocratize School Budget Data
Education Week, the leading trade publication in K12 public education, publishes J.H. Snider’s commentary on how to use new information technologies to democratize public access to school budget data.  Cited in Open School Checkbook Registers, Bluegrass Institute, May 21, 2009, and An Argument for School-Level Budget Transparency, Reason Foundation, August 17, 2009.

Democratize School Budget Data

President Barack Obama has repeatedly said to the public that when it comes to education spending, “we need to hold ourselves accountable for every dollar we spend.” Rather than think of the president’s goal as a rhetorical flourish, why not take it seriously? Specifically, why not require all school checkbook expenditures to be made accessible online — and in a structured, downloadable database that would allow citizens to search for and slice and dice the data in whatever way they might want?

Historically, school districts have published and posted on their Web sites budget data in summary views only. Summary views answer questions such as how much a district spent on student transportation in general, but not on a particular bus route; how much it spent on energy in general, not at a particular school; and how much it spent on total employee benefits, not a particular benefit such as sick leave.

There are three primary reasons citizens should support breaking school officials’ monopoly on budget-summary views.

First, officials have a conflict of interest in providing summary views. Rational administrators can be expected to use summary views for purposes of public relations rather than democratic accountability. As a matter of common sense, they will hide controversial information within large, uncontroversial categories. Their summary views will answer questions that they, not citizens, would most like to have asked. The budget presentation will be like a politician’s press conference where the reporters can ask only preapproved questions.

Second, school officials cannot think of every useful budget summary, any more than Google can anticipate how hundreds of millions of Americans will search its data or a library can project how patrons will use its collection.

Third, unless citizens are given access to data down to the checkbook level, they cannot effectively integrate budget figures across different governments (for example, to compare two similar school districts two thousand miles apart) or with nonbudget data (to find out a school contractor’s lobbying expenditures, for instance).

The Obama administration has already made great strides in democratizing budget data. For example, it has plans to put online, at recovery.gov, all the expenditures in the $787 billion stimulus bill, including $97 billion for education. In launching this Web site, President Obama said: This is your money. You have a right to know where it’s going and how it’s being spent.”

The historical forces pushing governments to democratize budget and other data run deep. Congress has its own Web site, usaspending.gov, which lists the money spent on every federal contractor. The state of Missouri also has a database that provides searchable line-item expenditures for all grants, contracts, and pubhe-employee compensation.

Many federal databases also already provide raw data online in a structured, downloadable format, including data from the departments of Commerce (such as U.S. Census numbers) and Labor (a raft of labor statistics) and the Environmental Protection Agency (toxic-waste inventories and the like).

According to a survey conducted by Peyton Wolcott, a Texas-based educational transparency advocate, more than 2 percent of U.S. school districts had started posting their check registers online by February of this year. The first to do so were all in Texas, where an executive order issued in 2005 provided districts with a strong financial incentive to post their checkbooks. If they did so, they could avoid a mandate to spend at least 65 percent of their budgets in the classroom.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration is pushing to create national standards for local and State education data, so that comparisons across districts can easily be made. Although this effort is currently focused on studentassessment data, it should be extended to budget data.

Specifically, federal, state, and local education checkbooks should all be made available online in a single, standardized format using so-called semantic Web technologies, which make it possible to more easily search and use Web content. XBRL, an international data tagging language adopted by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission for the financial reporting of public companies, could be the basis for such a standard. RDFa, a semantic Web technology endorsed by the World Wide Web Consortium, would allow decentralized structured data integration, just as Google compiles data from millions of Web sites into a single search engine.

Not all raw data collected by school systems should be, made public. Privacy concerns dictate that health claims, home addresses, and Social Security numbers not be disclosed. But privacy concerns are now being used to withhold far too much school budget data essential for democratic accountability.

At a minimum, no school system should be able to prevent access to computerized budget databases because checkbook records contain a mix of private and public data. Federal guidelines should require that all human-resource, student-attendance, and budget-software pro grams purchased by local school districts be able to automatically redact the private data and post the public online.

The information revolution has created unprecedented opportunities to democratize access to school data. But so far, few of them have been seized. With the. Obama administration committed to both a huge increase in education funding and more accountability for how those funds are spent, now is a good time to focus on democratizing access to budget data.

Such public access would still leave schools in the dark ages when it comes to using new information technology to enhance their democratic accountability. But it would help point them in the right direction, and send a strong signal to the public that enhancing schools’ democratic accountability, not merely their responsiveness to market forces, can and should be a powerful option in the toolkit of those seeking to make our schools more accountable to the public.

J.H. SNIDER is the president of iSolon.org. He is a former school board member and has written widely on education policy.

Source: Snider, J. H., Democratize School Budget Data, Education Week, 02774232, 5/20/2009, Vol. 28, Issue 32

March 18, 2009

Public School Systems Should Post Compensation Data Online
The Washington ExaminerThe Washington Examiner publishes J.H. Snider’s Sunshine Week commentary on the need to proactively disclose public expenditure data.

February 8, 2009

Need Teachers? Show Them the Money
The Washington Post publishes J.H. Snider’s commentary on the need for better public disclosure of teacher compensation data.  For a related commentary published in Education Week, see America’s Million-Dollar Superintendents.