Education Matters: Government by committee and board

Editor's Note: Numerous instances of plagiarism have been discovered in Dan Kimber’s “Education Matters” column, which ran in the News- Press from September 2003 to September 2011. In those columns where plagiarism has been found, a For the Record specifying the details will be appended to the piece.

I got an email the other day that I’ll condense here for you, but it made an interesting point. It listed the number of words contained in well-known pieces of writing, like the Lord’s prayer, 66 words; the 10 Commandments, 179 words, the Gettysburg address, 286 words, and ended with a not-so-well-known document, government regulations on the sale of cabbage — 26,911 words.

I checked it out, and like so many dire messages that go out daily from this medium, it was the figment of someone’s imagination. It found traction with a ready audience of Americans fed up with the bloated size of government and the continued growth of government bureaucracies.

I must confess that I was one of those Americans, believing as I have for many years that the complexity of government has gotten out of hand — way out of hand.

Twenty years ago, the Little Hoover Commission concluded that “California’s multi-level governmental structure includes more than 400 (presently that number is more than 1,000) boards, commissions, authorities, associations, councils and committees. These plural bodies operate to a large degree autonomously and outside of the normal checks and balances of representative government.

“[They] are proliferating without adequate evaluation of need, effectiveness and efficiency. This lack of control may cost the state not only dollars, but also wasted resources, duplicated efforts and the adoption of policies that may run counter to the general public’s interest.”

That last sentence was painfully true back in 1990, and given the nature of these inherited systems which self-propagate and become more complex with each generation, it is tragically true today.

And nowhere is it more in evidence than in California’s system of education. Until the 1978 passage of Proposition 13, funding and governance of California's public schools was concentrated in local school districts and paid for via property taxes. The tax-slashing Proposition 13, however, dramatically decreased property taxes as a source of public school funding.

Enter the new boss, Sacramento, along with a new era of top-down management and, not coincidentally, the beginning of a steep decline in the quality of education in this state. Monies now allocated for schools come mostly in the form of “categorical funding,” which means that they can only be spent according to state mandates.

Those mandates spring from a flawed premise that central planning is the way to go. The premise promotes the idea that people who live in distant places can dictate more enlightened policy and make better rules by lumping us all together into a common cauldron, stirring in theories and doctoral theses, pet projects and politically correct fashions and then mandating their implementation into public schools.

And it is in that faraway, out-of-touch place that committees and panels and boards multiply and work tirelessly to make for themselves a permanent place, even though they were originally designed to fill a temporary need.

And if that weren’t bad enough, legislatures often extend their existence without any formal review of past operations or future needs, purpose or direction. The result is that some bodies continue to exist even after they no longer have budget, staff or useful function.

While I am no great fan of columnist George Will, I think he made his point quite well in reference to national bureaucracies when he wrote:

“If you want to understand your government, don't begin by reading the Constitution. (It conveys precious little of the flavor of today's statecraft.) Instead, read selected portions of the Washington telephone directory containing listings for all the organizations with titles beginning with the word National.”

I do believe that it is every American's duty to support his government, but presently that government is overweight, so I would hasten to add this caveat to that obligation: Support it, but not necessarily in the style to which it has become accustomed.

DAN KIMBER taught in the Glendale Unified School District for more than 30 years. He may be reached at DKimb8@sbcglobal.net.

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FOR THE RECORD: Portions of this piece have been plagiarized from a report by Alan Bonsteel, M.D. and Barl Brodt. The report, “Where is all the money going? Bureaucracy and Overhead in California’s Public Schools,” was published on Nov. 1, 2000. 

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