I agree that the awards in speculative fiction are great - they’ve been helpful to me in exploring genres that I don’t have a lot of experience with. The Hugo Awards, for example, led me to N.K. Jemisin, Arkady Martine, and Cixin Liu, all of whom I’ve enjoyed. Interestingly, I’ve found that the big literary fiction awards - Pulitzer, National Book Award, Booker Prize - have been misaligned to my taste in fiction. I’m not entirely sure why that’s happened (it’s probably just me getting old). I’m also a reader who will endure through a book I’m not enjoying, particularly if it’s a “classic.” I do need to wean myself from the notion of a canon (the perils of majoring in English!), though there have been books where the struggle has been productive for me and I’m glad I persisted to the end. If only I knew which challenging books would result in that feeling! I’m also with you on a significant chunk of non-fiction books being more well-suited to a long-form article, particularly books that take on current events. It’s unfortunate that there’s not a strong market for non-fiction books too long for a magazine but too short for a full-length book, a sort of non-fiction novella category.
You really had to poke the bear by mentioning school boards. That said, I’ll start with the positives. I truly believe that the vast majority of school board members have good intentions. This is almost exclusively an unpaid, volunteer position. Don’t get me wrong, volunteers are essential. So many of our institutions rely on enthusiastic amateur volunteers to keep them running. This is certainly true in the institutions to which I belong, whether I’m in an active role like co-chairing a social justice committee at my synagogue or leading my neighborhood HOA, or primarily a passive member, like my kids’ schools’ PTAs or community sports leagues. There’s an assumption with these roles that a) everyone is acting with good intentions and b) the complexity of the role/institution is low enough that an amateur can do it without payment. School districts are…not that. I don’t have to tell you about the system complexity and financial complexity of school districts. These are not systems that should be overseen by well-meaning amateurs. However, we have this historical legacy of elected school boards, so what to do? I think the best option would be to, when possible, assign oversight of school districts to elected executives like mayors and county executives. Here in Baltimore County there is clear frustration from the county executive that he has little control over the largest budget item. This also ties into the concern that there are too many elected positions in the United States, which creates policy choke points and low-information/low turnout decisions by the public. This Atlantic piece bluntly states it: Americans Vote Too Much. Alas, a key hurdle here is that a lot of people believe that additional elected positions lead to better, more considered policy decisions, rather than (in my view) confusion about accountability and multiple choke points that stifle good decision-making. Recent attempts to streamline decision-making, like mayoral-led school districts, seem to have fallen out of favor, perhaps due to the unpopular decisions that many mayor-led systems had to make (e.g., school closures).
How do you feel about school boards? Other problems I failed to identify or different ways of looking at them?
Sticking with school governance, I’ve been wondering for the past two years about the roughly $190 billion in federal COVID relief funding to schools, which according to this Chalkbeat article works out to about $4,000 per student. While I know there were certain required set-asides to address learning loss and a few prohibitions, it seemed to me pretty much a blank check. I’ve struggled to find good information on how the funds are being spent or any impact on student outcomes, which is concerning! So I’ll end with a question for you: What do you think will be the long-term impact of the biggest one time infusion of funding into K-12 American education?
I find all of the non-speculative fiction awards similarly frustrating. They’re just not the kind of strong indicator I might like a book that I get from the Hugos or Nebulas. I used to believe in finishing any book I have started, but lately, I’ve been more willing to put something down. Sometimes it’s just not the right time, sometimes it’s just not the right book. I can always go for other attempts, but if a book just stops me in my tracks, it’s time to move on. I’d rather be reading than not reading because of some sense that I should always finish my book.
I think that assumption of complexity– and that an amateur can contribute effectively– permeates huge portions of our American system. A lot of “small d” democracy and volunteerism is built on visions of a society of small towns centered around just a few institutions everyone took part in. That’s why we vote too much (I also loved that article), but it’s also why we have some bad assumptions. I think by ceding control to volunteer amateurs, elected or not (and they’re barely elected), we signal that it is possible for amateurs to do a good job!
I think a core problem with the municipal control piece is that most municipalities, organizationally, are less complex than schools. The web of local, state, and federal funds, statutory requirements, and complexity of service delivery means that most school operations are simply harder than running county or municipal governments. So while I like moving the elected accountability in some sense, from an organizational perspective, the municipal functions would probably be more easily absorbed by the school systems than the other way around. There’s this huge frustration among mayors and county executives and city councils that the schools are a “black hole”– but in truth, the schools are more transparent, have more sophisticated practices, and have more difficult jobs to do– at least in my experience.
I think my core issue with school governance, and boards in general, is less that they exist and more that there are far too many. I think it’s probably about reasonable for Maryland to have county level boards and districts. I think it’s a disaster that Nassau County, New York is over 50 districts or that Rhode Island has 39. I’d like to see consolidation of districts, at least from a governance stand point, and I’d like to see more of their governance move up to the states. There’s no current state capacity, but it’s absolutely not to our advantage that we have so much variation in our school system. The only thing having lots of school districts truly guarantees is inequitable funding of schools, and that’s not the kind of variance worth chasing. But there’s also just not enough talent out there for 15,000 school boards and 15,000 superintendents and central offices. Regional service providers covering some core operations don’t go far enough.
I do think that ESSER was pretty much a blank check by design, and yet, I also think it will have virtually no impact. The data how dollars were spent will, I think, become clear in about 12 months. We’re just about to the end, which means the expenditures should all have been recorded and can be analyzed. We do an “ok” job of this on the Relief Funds tab for districts on the Arizona School Finance Portal – we decided to show the spending on relief funds by “function” code in Arizona. For the most part, it’s a pretty good indicator on the school district activities. We do have the data by object (the “what”) as well.
Ultimately, districts with lots of money largely couldn’t help themselves and hired staff, from what I could see. Some of those staff are just going to go away, some they struggled to hire in the first place, and some may stick around in states like Maryland where additional state funding is sufficiently backfilling ESSER investments. Those that received less funding were more likely, it seems to me, to use it for backlogged capital expenses where possible. Neither of these were necessarily bad uses of funds, but I don’t think that we will really see much impact from any funding that isn’t permanent. Districts just can’t plan to restructure what they do and how without reliable, recurring revenue. And I don’t think there’s a whole lot we can do that is one time, on the margin, with persisting impacts.
This is all conjecture just based on conversations I’ve been having. It’s strange to be on the side of “more money helps” while also saying “like this, don’t expect much”. It’s a horrific position to defend.
I guess this is my pessimistic prediction: the capital projects backlog will continue to be long, but things will be less bad than they would have been. The current interest rate environment is going to make it even harder to chip away at things like build quality, and the ESSER funding may delay that being a total disaster long enough for interest rates to decline a bit.
Sorry for the late response! We had our all-company, in-person meeting last week at the Belvedere followed by our Education Finance Summit at the Maryland Center for History and Culture. I flew up to NY directly from the conference for Rosh Hashanah at my parents and… things got away from me.
Looking forward to your next letter.