In 2009, the Wake County School District underwent a sudden and, to many, surprising change. With national tea party backing, 2009 school board elections led to a new five-to-four openly conservative majority on what had previously been a relatively nonpartisan school board. The newly elected bloc swiftly began to dismantle what had been lauded as a highly successful racial and economic integration program, leading to national media attention, including a front-page Washington Post story. Two years later, twice as many voters turned out to flip the majority, break up the bloc, reverse the sudden policy shifts and move the board to approach the integration issue with a more balanced eye.
Thankfully, we here in Howard County aren’t facing re-segregation, personal attention from the Secretary of Education or lampooning at the hands of Stephen Colbert. (Although, perhaps, I would welcome his views on a few facets of our local politics.) Still, our votes count, one for one, and our elections set the course of issues that directly affect all of us. On April 3, polls will be open for the Howard County Board of Education primaries, winnowing the field of candidates from 14 to six, three of whom will eventually be seated after the general election in November.
There is a relatively low bar of entry here: a $10 filing fee and your name, too, could appear on the ballot! (No penalty for apparent procrastination, as long as you make the deadline.) Heck, a disinterested electorate and a last name beginning with letter A through E and you might even find yourself elected.
With that in mind, it is even more incumbent upon each individual voter to become educated (not necessarily activist) and cast his/her ballot come Primary Day. With the advent of digital communications, local elections no longer need be the province of party hacks and angry old folks. (Heck, two of the most popular shows in my house prominently feature local political races.)
Local blogs are supplementing news coverage with zeal. The local League of Women Voters held a candidates’ forum you can view at your convenience, through the wonder of the intertubes. Candidates’ positions are available, in many ways, to be weighed, examined, digitally debated and acted on.
Our children will not be served by histrionics or by senseless self-devotion to self-serving causes. Our shared problems will not be solved by axes well ground or cross-country shouting matches. We must be wary of formation of voting blocs, no matter how well-intentioned, and any excuse of “they started it” smacks of the children meant to be taught, not emulated. Negativity is ultimately a vacuum that solves nothing, helps no one, builds no schools and teaches no children. Issues advanced for issues’ sake, polemics, a blind eye turned toward the nitty-gritty of administering a massive school system do not serve us, the taxpayers, well.
The Board of Education steers two-thirds of the Howard County budget. from the state to the county have the potential to send massive shock waves through our school system in the coming years. Maryland has applied for a waiver from No Child Left Behind and testing is in flux. The coming election matters.
Back in Wake County, the election that brought a partisan faction to power saw only ten percent of eligible voters turn out. A Wake County resident I spoke to said, “What happened here just proved how a small segment of the population can execute a power-play when the majority is apathetic about a local election. Most people in Wake County were quite happy with school policies that had earned the county national acclaim and had been copied elsewhere. But because most people didn't vote in the school board election, an energized, extreme group was able to, at least temporarily, reverse those popular policies.”
Wake County stands as an example of what can happen when elected officials, enabled by an energized minority over a disinterested majority, lose touch with reality. Democracy is rule by the people; ochlocracy is rule by a mob. The difference is surprisingly slight, and ultimately hinges on the education and participation of what is often termed “the silent majority.” Neither involved enough to be openly partisan, nor invested enough to openly debate, it’s fine to be silent—as long as that silence still culminates in a thoughtful, quiet vote.