Democracies, Republics, and School Boards
March 3, 2010
by William P. Meyers

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When I wrote America: Republic or Democracy?, I wrote in terms of generalities, but used the federal government of the United States of America as the main example. Also when I wrote the essay (in 2002) the ultra-conservatives were not pushing so hard at their idea that America should be a republic where only a few (presumably self-selected) citizens will be allowed to vote for their representatives. I certainly did not expect that school boards would need to decide whether my essay could be used at their schools.

One great thing about school boards is that they are perfect illustrations of the fact that governance can satisfy both democratic and republican forms at the same time. The larger the proportion of the population that is allowed to vote, the more democratic the form of government. Post the collapse of discrimination against African-Americans (and Hispanic, Asian, and native Indian-American) who wanted to vote, in the 1960's, every American public school board has been subject to election by potentially all of the adult population of their respective school districts. Yet the system is not direct democracy, where every person can vote on every issue at every meeting.

The Republican form means that the actual government (at least the legislative branch) is elected, or representative. In an undemocratic republic only a select group of people are allowed to vote for the elected officials. In a democratic republic everyone can vote for the officials. At the edges of the definitions of republic and democracy there are some strange fish. For instance, if there is only one official, who is thereby basically a dictator once elected, in theory if there is a free election and everyone could vote, you could still call it a sort of democracy. On the other hand, you might have a thousand people elected to parliament or a House of Representatives, but a tiny number of voters (say the district's ten wealthiest men), and technically it would still be a republican form of government.

However, another factor is the size (mostly in population) of the school district. There is a big difference between the operation of the Point Arena, California school district where I served and the San Francisco school district, for instance. We don't have a word for it, but in my view Point Arena, precisely because of its small size, is more democratic. If even 10% of the citizens wanted to lobby a school board member for assorted changes in the curriculum in San Francisco, for instance, how much time could each person have with their elected representative? Not much. But in Point Arena it was no problem for me to take a phone call at home, or see someone out in the street, or listen to them at a board meeting. If they cared to tell me what they thought, they could tell me. If they wanted to know why the district was doing something, I could explain it to them.

There is a tendency to want to merge school districts together for administrative purposes, and I suppose that sometimes is a bit more, or even a lot more efficient. But if you want democratic control of the school board and schools, you want a small school district.

This also opens up the topic of the hierarchical structure of government in the United States. The Point Arena schools get bossed around quite a bit by the state of California and the federal government, and for the most part they are not very helpful, as far as I can tell. I can see how their bossiness might be good for the kids in a school district that had an incompetent school board, administration, and teaching staff. But bossing everyone around from Washington is like making everyone eat at McDonald's Corporation. Sure, you know what you are getting, and you won't starve, but wouldn't cooks with a little autonomy be likely to do better rather than worse?

So hurray for the Alpine School District in Utah. They censored my essay and crumbled before a crazy person who does not understand basic political theory and practice [See Republic or Democracy Essay Censored in Utah]. But to me, that is just a risk of democracy. It beats the risk of having the crazy people take over with no way to vote them out, as they did in Nazi Germany or Fascist Italy, Fascist France, and General Franco's Spain.

As an added benefit I learned that they actually allow teaching evolution at Brigham Young University (see also their nematode evolution page). The Mormon Church theologians are not keen on the idea of evolution through natural selection, but the funny thing is that Joseph Smith and Charles Darwin were contemporaries and both were innovators. I wonder what Darwin would have thought of Big Love?

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