One of the great insights of Nobel laureate George Stigler is that regulatory bodies, like school boards, tend to end up serving the interests of those they are supposed to regulate at the expense of the public. He called this “regulatory capture.” It is common for elected school boards to favor the priorities of school administrators and teachers union leaders at the expense of the desires of students, parents, teachers, and other community members. Through effective public relations, the control of information, and heavy involvement in election politics, school administrators and teachers union leaders select the school board members who are most likely to see things their way. Regulatory capture is pervasive in our country because well-intentioned school board members vote to approve (rubber stamp) every proposal made by school administrators, assuming that whatever administrators ask for must be what is best for the community.
Back in 2016, Melissa Prochnau was the first non-incumbent to run for a school board seat since 2004. There were changes in school board membership during this period, but when a school board member resigns (never at the time of an election), the remaining members appoint someone to fill that seat on the board for the rest of the term and then that person is an incumbent in the next election. All 5 elections from 2006 to 2014 only had incumbents on the ballet. When an outsider decided to run in the 2016 election, the 4 incumbent school board candidates formed the RDP PAC with the support of school administrators and teachers union leaders to try to prevent Prochnau from being elected. The RDP PAC’s $5,000 in funding came from the Indiana teachers union political arm, I-PACE (see the 2016 PAC final report). The PAC was unsuccessful in keeping Prochnau from being elected, though the vote was very close.
In the 2020 school board election, the same thing happened, just on a larger scale. 15 candidates ran for 4 school board seats. Teachers union leaders selected 4 candidates that were most closely aligned with school administrator interests. The RDP PAC raised $40,000 to support the 4 status quo candidates, again with $5,000 coming from the Indiana teachers union and money from school contractors (see the 2020 PAC final report and the 2020 PAC mid-election report). The PAC put up signs and sent out direct mail and text messages saying that the “WL teachers endorse” the 4 PAC candidates. Teachers were very frustrated about this because they were not asked to provide any input into which candidates the union leaders would back. The union leaders did not even allow teachers union members to vote or give input on which candidates to endorse. It was the union leaders’ decision back those candidates. An “apocalyptic” letter sent out by the PAC inflamed the community and was widely denounced, though school administrators and union leaders stood by its claims. After the votes were counted, 3 of the 4 PAC candidates and only 1 non-PAC candidate, Yue Yin, were elected to the school board. Yin essentially took Prochnau’s seat as the lone outsiders on the school board. Teachers union leaders working with school administrators to influence school board elections is common and it is textbook regulatory capture.
There was a high level of community frustration with the RDP PAC after the 2020 election. So, in September 2022, the leaders of the RDP PAC transferred all its remaining assets to a new PAC called Citizens for Quality School Leadership (CQSL). This was just a renaming; the RDP PAC and the CQSL PAC list the same contact phone number and most importantly: it’s the same money. In the 2022 election, 6 candidates ran for 3 board seats. The renamed PAC was less successful this time. It only got 1 of the 3 candidates it supported elected.
Controlling information is the other key component of the regulatory capture strategy. Our school board passed a gag order to prevent board members from sharing public documents with the community. Rather than holding open discussions and providing information, the school board asks community members with concerns to have a private conversation with a school administrator. That way, everything stays off the record. Before 2022, the only way to get school administrators to release public information was to request it through an ARPA request. My public access case, Mumford v. West Lafayette Community School Corp, forced the school board to begin posting documents.
As a community, do we want to continue to allow teachers union leaders and school administrators to select who serves on the school board? Often, the interests of teachers union leaders, school administrators, and the community coincide. However, sometimes the best policy for the community is not the best policy for school administrators. Sometimes the best policy for students, parents, and teachers is not the best policy for teachers union leaders. Who do you want the school board to represent? My view is that we want a school board that will represent the community.
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