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Robert's Rules not a magic bullet for education chaos

Tuesday, November 19, 2013 - 12:01 am

Superintendent and board members have very different visions.

Robert’s Rules of Order is the greatest tool for getting things accomplished at meetings ever invented. The guide to parliamentary procedures was created in 1876 by Army office Henry Martyn Robert, who based it on the rules then being used by the U.S. House. Because it lays out strict, clear guidelines for conducting a fair and orderly session, it has become the most frequently used set of rules for public meetings in America.

So why not, some are now suggesting, adopt Robert’s Rules for the Indiana State Board of Education meetings that have become so chaotic and calamitous of late? “I think the entire point of these parliamentary procedures is to prevent entropy and chaos,” said Ashlyn Nelson, a professor of housing and education policy at Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs.

Well, maybe Robert’s Rules would help, and maybe they wouldn’t.

The rules are designed to keep a meeting moving, to introduce and discuss items in a consistent manner, and to give every voting member an equal shot at making a case for or against something. They work best when used by people who are trying to achieve a common goal despite personality conflicts or philosophical differences. The nine members of City Council, fore example, differ on many issues, but they have a common goal of using government to maintain and improve their city.

Certainly Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz and other board members should have the common goal of making sure every Hoosier student has access to a quality education. But they are so at odds on how to achieve that goal that it is getting lost in the heat of battle. In fact, they created their own set of rules instead of using Robert’s Rules as an extension of their ongoing power struggle. The lack of orderly procedure is an indication of the contention, not its cause.

Robert’s Rules should be adopted for the simple reason that it will make meetings orderly and fair. But we shouldn’t suppose that will create a harmony of purpose.

The differences among board members are superficially political – a Democratic superintendent supported by teachers and Republican board members loyal to the governor. But the underlying differences are much more important. Ritz and the other members have fundamental disagreements over how many and what kind of reforms are needed in education. Those disagreements have led to strongly differing agendas.

The differences can only be resolved by voters. All the parliamentary rules in the world will not change that reality.