Maxwell’s Political Legacy: Not Pretty

| July 27, 2013
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After more than seven years at the helm of the Anne Arundel County Public Schools (AACPS), Superintendent Kevin Maxwell will resign and become head of the Prince George’s County public schools, effective August 1, 2013.  What is his AACPS legacy?

Many encomiums have been written about Maxwell’s AACPS legacy as a champion of children.  Those who have so praised Maxwell are undoubtedly far more qualified than I, a mere parent, to make such a judgment.

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Instead, I want to write about something far less important than Maxwell’s championship of children but that I am more competent to comment on: Maxwell’s legacy of undermining AACPS’s democratic institutions.  Here, as a citizen and attentive student of such matters, I would suggest that Maxwell’s record, to put it mildly, is nothing to be proud of.

Let me qualify such an evaluation.  I’m not talking about Maxwell’s verbal commitments to democratic norms, which I think have been outstanding.  I’m simply talking about his actions.

I’m also not criticizing Maxwell’s political skills, which I also think have been outstanding; indeed, arguably the best in the County.  Instead, I’m criticizing the use to which he put those skills.

Finally, I want to acknowledge the controversial assumption that democratic norms are appropriate in a public school system.  Many people believe that the public, including parents, are too incompetent and selfish to judge what’s best for children.  Instead, the schools should be run by experts who have the children’s best interests at heart.  As a general matter, rule by disinterested experts (usually advocated by autocrats and their supporters) has had many distinguished supporters over the last few thousand years, including Plato and Aristotle.  But I believe that AACPS has carried this governing philosophy too far.

With these caveats out of the way, we can turn to Maxwell’s not-so-pretty political legacy. Here are a few of the highlights.  Maxwell:

1)   Rewrote the AACPS Policy Manual to Take Power from Citizens

Nancy Mann, the interim superintendent before Maxwell took over, launched a massive rewrite of the AACPS policy manual that incoming superintendent Maxwell finished and implemented.  The policy manual is the compilation of the rules the Board of Education approves for the governance of AACPS.  It is akin to the statutes a legislature passes or the ordinances a municipal council passes.  The policies are then implemented as regulations by the Superintendent and other AACPS staff.

The rewrite radically shifted power from the Board of Education to the Administration by turning a large fraction of the policies into vague motherhood and apple pie mandates.  This was consistent with the Board’s commitment not to micromanage the Superintendent and his staff: the Board would hire and evaluate the superintendent, and then let him use his expertise to do what was best for the children.  But it’s one thing for a school board to make a verbal commitment not to micromanage.  It’s another thing when they actually institutionalize such a commitment.  One of the most interesting features of this radical shift of power from a more democratic institution (the Board of Education) to a less democratic one (school administrators) is that it was never covered in the press.

2)   Created Vague, Secret, and Arbitrarily Enforced Administrative Law

One way to shift power to administrators is to let them draft and approve regulations without meaningful constraints set by Board of Education approved policies.  Another way is to pass poorly drafted regulations, such as regulations containing jargon, in such a way that administrators can make of them whatever they want in relation to the parents and students.  Consider the grading policy passed in June 2012:

The previous policy for assigning an “A” was:

Any student receiving an “A” should show exceptional achievement on concepts, skills, and processes presented. In so doing, the student should be consistent in exhibiting leadership and independence in the classroom. The student’s response, written or oral, to questions and testing situations should be consistently accurate, logical and rational. The student’s interest, attitude, retention, initiative, originality and responsibility toward assignments, class work, evaluations, research, and projects are consistently at the highest level of achievement for course standards.

The new policy is: “Excellent mastery of standards is evident.”

How does “excellent” differ from “mastery”?  Doesn’t mastery imply excellence?  And a B is “Advanced mastery of standards is evident.”  How does “advanced” differ from “excellent”?  The two adjectives sound like synonyms to me.  And then there are multiple escape clauses asserting that a principal can “override a numerical average,” which sounds to me like “administrators may ignore all other relevant regulations if they find them inconvenient.”

Imagine if administrators tried to pass such vague performance standards in relation to the teachers that work for them.  There would be a bloody insurrection.  It simply could never happen.  Disorganized parents, of course, are much easier to intimidate.

Another way to shift power to administrators at the expense of the public is to allow administrators to create and enforce secret laws.  By secret laws I mean regulations that cannot be found anywhere in writing but that administrators claim to exist when dealing with parents and students.  When my son was interested in taking a distance learning course, I was amazed at all the secret regulations that I was told about but couldn’t find anywhere in writing even after I asked relevant staff for help locating them.

Lastly, the creation of inscrutable and secret law fosters selective and arbitrary enforcement of the law.  The notion of blind justice, or the equal application of the law, is essential to democratic governance.  In practice, however, AACPS regulations often function less to be applied equally to all than to be selectively applied when administrators want to punish or reward someone.  Such selective and arbitrary enforcement of the law is associated with injustice and dictatorships because it is such an effective way to intimidate citizens.

3)   Centralized Control of Information

For more than a decade, self-protective Federal government administrators have been creating rules to prevent reporters and other opinion leaders from communicating with their staff without the approval of their press offices.  The national press that cover the agencies bitterly complain about this because it makes their work much less efficient—they cannot just pick up the phone and chat with the expert who has the information they need.  It also reduces the quality of the information they can get because press officials not only slow down information gathering on sensitive topics but often seek to prevent it altogether.  Often press officials will also play harmful games.  For example, if they know a reporter with a reputation for publishing unfavorable stories about their agency is on the trail of a story, they will find a way to harm the reporter.  A simple technique is to give the story to a different, more favorably disposed reporter who will not only cast it in a much more favorable light but get credit for the scoop.  There are also many other ways a clever PR officer can punish someone for asking questions she doesn’t want answered.

To my knowledge, Maxwell never formally adopted a policy whereby any sensitive information requests from public opinion leaders would have to go through the AACPS Public Information Office (“PR office”), so I’d classify this as one of his unwritten or “secret” regulations.  But in my experience, that’s what happened.  One can get an inkling of this by reviewing press coverage of AACPS, where the PR office spokesperson is responsible for a remarkably high share of AACPS quotes.

4)   Increased PR Budgets in the Form of Press Subsidies

Maxwell understood that one way to get good press coverage is to write the press coverage yourself.  Accordingly, he brought in a talented, industrious editor from one of the local newspapers to write the stories and manage a staff of five.  As I’ve written elsewhere (see Understanding The Capital Gazette’s Political Biases), this strategy was remarkably effective in getting the primary newspaper that covers AACPS to publish many of the press releases with minimal or no new reporting and only modest rewriting.

5)   Changed the Countywide CAC from a Bottom-Up to Top-Down Organization

The Maryland General Assembly created the AACPS Countywide Citizen Advisory Committee (CAC) in the early 1970s as a way to give AACPS parents a meaningful voice in a public school system with an appointed Board of Education and thus lacking traditional democratic modes of public participation.  It was understood that the PTA could not provide this function effectively.  In a watered down format, the General Assembly’s CAC mandate was later extended statewide.

The original AACPS vision of the Countywide CAC was as a bottom-up elected organization, with a local CAC composed of elected parents at every school, a feeder system CAC elected from the local CACs, and a Countywide CAC elected from the Countywide CAC.  By the time Maxwell came along, the original bottom-up system had already been seriously weakened, including the widespread ignoring of CAC regulations deemed inconvenient, but local schools still had local CACs that appointed representatives to the Countywide CAC.

Maxwell couldn’t outright abolish the Countywide CAC because it was mandated by state law.  But he did transform it from an organization that was still primarily bottom-up to one that was top-down.  Now all candidates for membership in the Countywide CAC have to submit applications to a central committee controlled by school administrators and school board members.   The CAC cannot pursue an agenda that hasn’t been approved by the Board of Education.   It also indirectly became central to the superintendent’s and Board of Education’s lobbying strategy.

As a former Countywide CAC Chair, I’ve written about the CAC change in detail.  The change also generated great controversy among parents.  For the dozens of parental comments to the Board of Education on this change, most of them seeking to preserve the bottom-up system of parental control, see public comments regarding the proposed Board of Education Policy to gut the Countywide CAC.

6)   Changed Student Elections to the Board of Education from a Bottom-Up to Top-Down Process

Maxwell did to Student-Member-Of-The-Board (SMOB) elections and the organization that elects the SMOB, CRASC, what he did to the CAC: shift power centrally so he would have a veto on any outcome he didn’t want.  I have already written about this in depth elsewhere, so will not elaborate here.  See Anne Arundel’s Next Superintendent Should Restore Integrity to SMOB Elections.

7)   Contributed to the Worst Tendencies of the School Board Nominating Commission (SBNC)

The SBNC was created by the Maryland General Assembly in 2007 and first implemented in 2008.  It nominates candidates for the AACPS Board of Education to Maryland’s governor.  The SBNC meets at AACPS school headquarters and depends on school staff for its various communications, including maintaining its website and sending out email notices.  It also has conducted “field hearings” at local schools.  Although the SBNC is primarily a creature of the Maryland General Assembly, the AACPS PR office has taken over its record keeping, including its website and TV coverage.   I have on many earlier occasions criticized how it has used this power and will not repeat myself here (e.g., see Governor to reappoint two incumbents to AACPS school board).  Needless to say, there is a reason elections and election records are generally administered by independent boards of election.

Conclusion

More than 100 countries now call themselves “democracies.”  Of these, political scientists categorize some as “façade” or “pseudo” democracies because they retain the outward forms of democracy and extol their commitment to democracy while in practice undermining democracy.  President Vladimir Putin of Russia is perhaps the best known living practitioner of such a governance philosophy.  During his more than 12 years of rule, including three elections, Putin has radically undermined the institutions of Russian democracy while all the time publicly professing his fealty to such institutions.  Meanwhile, he succeeded for many years in maintaining sky high popular approval ratings (thanks in part to a compliant private press controlled by oligarchs trying to curry favor with him), although his approval ratings have dropped since his last election.

Rulers in pseudo democracies retain power through a variety of techniques.  The press tend to focus on intimidation via violence and corrupt judicial systems.  Political scientists tend to focus on clientele politics, whereby citizens have more to gain for themselves by currying favor with those in power rather than criticizing them.   Clientele politics may be a particularly apt description of the relationship between parents and AACPS, given that AACPS effectively holds hostage parents’ most valuable possession, their children.  In the vast majority of cases, the sophisticated AACPS parent’s best strategy is to praise those in power.  Maxwell understood this political dynamic and astutely exploited it.  Maxwell didn’t need to be involved in the details; he just needed to foster the right environment.

To be fair, Maxwell did an outstanding job being accountable to AACPS staff, which is a type of democratic accountability.  But for me, that’s accountability to too small a fraction of the public, except when the interests of the staff and public overlap, as they often do.

The Board of Education and those who structure the Board of Education’s incentives should reverse Maxwell’s undemocratic political legacy.  To the extent that Maxwell merely skillfully played the deck of cards he was dealt, the political obstacles to doing this are formidable.   My bet is that in the coming year the Board of Education will pick as the next superintendent someone who continues and consolidates Maxwell’s undemocratic political legacy.

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Category: Editorial, Education, OPINION

About the Author ()

J.H. Snider is the president of iSolon.org and a 2012-2013 non-residential fellow at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University. For updates on this author's local and state articles, like this page.