A little more amateur government

Abby Rapoport at the the Texas Tribune has a story that illustrates some of the problems with having part-time amateurs running state agencies. In “No Experience Necessary,” Rapoport describes some of the controversies surrounding the State Board of Education‘s management of the Permanent School Fund.

The State Board of Education (SBOE) has been facing criticism as some members have rejected the recommendation of staff and experts in putting together curriculum for public school students. In this case the Board is facing scrutiny for putting aside advice from staff in its handling of the Permanent School Fund (PSF). The PSF’s origins go back to 1854 when the new state of Texas set aside $2 million of the $10 million it received from the US for giving up claims to some of the land it had claimed as the Republic of Texas.  The Constitution of 1876 revived the fund and granted the proceeds of the sale of certain public lands to fund.  Since that time monies from the sales and leasing of these public lands have gone into the PSF with the returns on the investment of the funds being made available for use in Texas public schools. The PSF was valued at about $22.6 billion dollars at the end of fiscal 2009.

Tasking the SBOE with management of these funds puts Board members in a challenging position. Of course, the SBOE doesn’t try to directly manage every detail of the fund itself. The Board works with consultants and the staff of the Texas Education Agency. Still, the role of the Board is to supervise these investments. This creates two sets of problems:

  1. Asking a set of part-time board members to manage the very different areas of high finance and education curriculum. Would you ask your high school’s principal to manage your portfolio? Would you ask your stockbroker to decide how the sciences should be taught?
  2. Concerns about possible conflicts of interest you might expect when you’ve got that much money on the table.

There is a good case to made for having amateur boards watch over the professional bureaucracies we have in Texas. However, asking citizens to supervise many different functions effectively undermines the ability to supervise any one function. Sometimes, too much supervision results in no supervision. The safety net seems to be stretched a little too far.

So… What are the limits of amateur bureaucracy? Is it better suited for some areas than others.

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