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The Future of School Boards

Across the nation, urban officials are becoming increasingly disillusioned with the performance of elected school boards. The examples of mayors Richard Daley in Chicago and Michael Bloomberg in New York City—both of whom sought and won direct control over their city’s school systems—have inspired other mayors, such as Anthony Williams in Washington, D.C., to press for the power to appoint the school board’s members or dissolve the board altogether.

The typical complaints lodged against elected school boards are that no one person is in charge of the schools and that board members are often concerned more with advancing their own political careers than tending to the students’ educational needs. The resulting turf battles and grandstanding can create chaos instead of focused leadership.

School boards in some cities, notably in San Diego and Houston, have coalesced around a vision for reform and put that vision into action. Can they become the norm rather than the exception? And if not, are there alternatives that can keep the public involved in school governance while still encouraging high performance?

There are two presentations below that discuss the issues about school boards. Steering a True Course advocates for keeping local school boards while Lost at Sea presents the case for disbanding local school boards. In 2009 a study of school governance was published.

Steering a True Course

by Sarah Graves

Have school boards outlived their usefulness? Are they an anachronism? To answer these questions, we must consider why most school districts consistently perform at mediocre levels—and why some districts fail children in vast numbers. The National Assessment of Educational Progress data for African-American students in urban districts is truly alarming. One looks at the numbers and wonders why people even show up in the buildings called “schools” if so little learning is taking place.

Are school boards to blame for this state of affairs? No. But can school boards help to change this state of affairs? Absolutely.

Of course it would be foolish not to acknowledge the missteps many school boards have taken. There are school boards (and union organizers, superintendents, and district officials) that have created terrible, costly problems by serving the needs of adults rather than kids.

For instance, until 2001, the school board in Duval County, Florida, contracted with more than one hundred private bus companies to provide students with transportation—about $36 million worth of services—without soliciting competing bids. Today the school district has four competitively bid contracts, a consolidation that has resulted in substantial direct and indirect cost savings.

But if school boards have outlived their usefulness as evidenced by district performance, wouldn’t we also have to say that superintendents, the district model, and teacher and administrator preparation programs have all outlived their usefulness as well? Well, they might have. Which means there needs to be a dramatic redesign of schools and school systems to achieve different results. But that leads us right back to school boards—or some other form of local governance.

Some argue that school districts are the chief hindrance to such a “dramatic redesign.” They may be. But waving a wand to make districts and school boards disappear will not solve this problem. More than ten years of experience with charter schools has demonstrated that, in the absence of a traditional school district, it is still necessary to have some form of local oversight. There are poor performers and unscrupulous players to monitor. This cannot happen from the state level; states don’t have the capacity or the reach. Some form of local governance must exist—not only because of the sheer number of schools, but because the quality of decisionmaking tends to disintegrate as it moves farther from the target. Moreover, some core group in the community has to have a fire in its belly for better results. It has to be the school board.

Leadership for Reform

Poll after poll finds people dissatisfied with public education as a whole, but they consistently give their local schools high marks. This should tell us that parents are not going to push for wholesale improvement. They don’t appear to see a need for it.

Perhaps the superintendent and district staff could lead the charge? Don’t hold your breath. It is unrealistic to expect people within the system to generate a commitment to significant change and follow through when the upheaval affects employees’ job security, pay, and recognition. Expecting significant change to develop from within a bureaucracy is like expecting marshmallow fluff to take on the properties of titanium. Besides, superintendents are mobile professionals—they move from city to city and are rarely committed to a long-term vision for a community.

How about city government? Some mayors have inserted themselves in this role and been effective. But mayors have plenty to do without making sure the school district is on track. What happens when the mayor’s attention is absorbed by a natural disaster? City budget deficit? Reelection campaign? Of course, members of elected school boards have their own reelection campaigns to worry about—but this is in no way comparable to a mayor’s campaign. School board elections are focused on . . . schools. They are also dramatically different in scale. The sitting mayor in Houston spent over $8 million on his campaign; candidates for the Houston school board spend about $50,000. And in a large district just outside of Houston, winning school board candidates often spend less than $1,000.

What if the next mayor does not maintain the focus on education? School districts are much larger (in employees, budgets, facilities) than traditional city agencies like fire, police, and sanitation. School districts are also just plain harder to manage because they are so intensely human. The resources are teachers, the raw materials are children, and the product is learning. This is a world different from getting sewage clean. Mayoral control of school districts is not likely to be stable or focused over time.

How about the business community? In 15 case studies of cities across the nation, the Center for Reform of School Systems has found that business involvement is uneven and crisis-driven. Perhaps more troubling, as businesses consolidate and there are fewer corporate headquarters, there are fewer business leaders who train their focus on a specific city. An education leader in Charlotte, North Carolina, said: “The bank CEOs used to be like our benevolent dictators—and they deeply cared about what happened in Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools. But now, the world is their playground. They are as worried about Tokyo as they are about Charlotte.”

Religious leaders? They are obviously important contributors, but not organized or funded for systematic oversight of schools and school systems.

That leaves school boards, groups of citizens who are specifically concerned with driving school reform. It’s a fair question to ask whether local school boards have the will or the capacity to take on the responsibility of leading change. Some argue that school boards are the vanguard of the status quo, investing their time defending the “one best system” that perennially delivers dismal results.

But that is by no means universal. In Houston, Seattle, Sacramento, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, and Dayton, school boards have been the primary actors in reform. Likewise, the school boards in Aldine, Texas, and Long Beach, California, have been strong partners in maintaining a commitment to delivering better results. The Philadelphia School Reform Commission (the new name for the city’s school board) saved a sinking ship. In St. Louis, the school board took on great personal and political risk to hire a private management firm skilled in the art of the turnaround.

In these cities, the school boards hired superintendents with the clear intention of promoting systemic change in the district. Some of these boards ensure that the superintendent’s contract is tied to performance targets, providing salary bonuses for specific increases in student achievement over time.

The reforms in Philadelphia and St. Louis are too recent to assess, but all the other districts have logged student achievement gains, some of them substantial. The Washington, D.C.–based Education Trust recently recognized both Houston and Aldine with its prestigious “Dispelling the Myth” award for narrowing gaps in student achievement.

This need for outside pressure may be an argument for appointed boards. But, of the districts listed above, only Philadelphia has an appointed board. If the democratic process is yielding poorly qualified school board members, then we should all pay attention to recruiting and supporting talented people to run for school board. This is a leadership deficit that city governments, business leaders, and the faith community are well poised to address.

Local Accountability

The improvements observed in school districts during the past several years (largely confined to the elementary grades) can be traced to increased accountability and standards developed and imposed by the state. So, for much of the past 20 years, the state has been the outside source of pressure on school districts to improve. But these are “big box” improvements that can go only so far. By definition they cannot address needs that are idiosyncratic to a local geography or local economy.

For instance, some of the school boards named above implemented district accountability systems that are congruent with but go beyond the state accountability systems. How can the state of Texas—which serves four million students—create a standards and accountability system that perfectly meets the needs of students in Houston and far-off Amarillo? It can’t. So in the Houston Independent School District, students take the Stanford achievement test. These scores are then used to rate schools in the district’s accountability system, which was designed to augment the state’s. These testing requirements are established in local board policy, not required by the state. The state can do some of the heavy lifting—and then local leaders need to augment to meet local needs.

Not many school boards are exercising this responsibility. A Center for Reform of School Systems survey found that less than 25 percent of the nation’s 120 largest districts were implementing anything that wasn’t purely reactive. Only 10 percent had actual teeth in their local accountability measures. The fact that school boards are not exercising leadership in this area means they need to get busy—not disappear.

Watching the Coffers

As long as public dollars flow to schools and districts, it is important that the use of those dollars is looked after. There must be oversight. In large states like Texas, California, and Florida, the state’s reach is not long enough or skilled enough to get the job done. There is no way for a state education administrator in Sacramento to be in tune with what is happening in Chula Vista and the umpteen other districts this person would surely follow. The Chula Vista students would just be numbers for the state administrator, easily disappearing in columns of test results.

Some who suggest that school boards should disappear also argue that school districts should vanish. But what do a vast number of individual schools look like without local governance? A recipe for disaster. A high-level Texas Education Agency administrator told me that she spends more time on the handful of charter schools that request assistance from her office than on the more than 1,000 school districts she serves. One can quickly see how the state’s being responsible for local governance is farcical.

Without proper oversight, opportunities for mismanagement and fraud will abound. Many states have horrid stories of unscrupulous charter school operators defrauding the state. We cannot be naïve about sending millions of public dollars into the hands of individual school operators or district managers.

Yes, school boards and school board members have themselves been involved in shady deals. There are too many stories of school board members influencing district contracts in ways that have benefited themselves, their friends, and their families. But how will the wrongs disappear if school boards vanish? They won’t. We will just have a new list of things going wrong.

School boards—or some form of local governance—must exist. They should be held responsible for leading significant reform, holding their schools accountable for high student achievement, and ensuring that tax dollars are deployed efficiently.

For school boards to live up to this list of responsibilities, they must focus clearly on the core mission of the district: high performance of kids—not safe harbors for adults. City leaders must participate actively in recruiting talented and committed people to run for boards or to be appointed to boards. States should ensure that school board elections are held with other elections so that narrow interest groups don’t gain such a toehold.

School boards must take responsibility for improving district performance. Indeed, they are the only group that can.

Sarah C. Glover is the director of programs and operations at the Center for Reform of School Systems, a Houston-based group that promotes reform-minded school board leadership.


Lost at Sea

by Chester E. Finn Jr. & Lisa G. Keegan

Early 20th century Progressive reformers established elected school boards as a means of shielding public school systems from the politics and patronage of corrupt city governments. Citizens, rather than political dons or their favored appointees, would govern the community’s schools with the community’s interests at heart.

Today, however, elected school boards, especially in America’s troubled cities, are just as apt to contribute to the school system’s ills. They often resemble a dysfunctional family, composed of three unlovable types: 1) aspiring politicians for whom this is a rung on the ladder to higher office; 2) former employees of the school system with a score to settle; and 3) single-minded advocates of one dubious cause or another who yearn to use the public schools to impose their particular hang-up on all the kids in town.

These junior politicians often do more harm than good, representing the community’s factions more than its interests. Progressives thought the elected school board would keep politics out of education. In fact, it has immersed our public schools in politics. One need only witness the behavior of the Chicago and New York City school boards before their recent mayoral takeovers—or the behavior of the Los Angeles and Dallas school boards today.

Cities across America are beginning to recognize that the traditional school board is no longer the embodiment of participatory democracy it was intended to be. The romantic notion that local school boards are elected by local citizens has been replaced with the reality that these elections are essentially rigged. They are held at odd times, when practically nobody votes except those with a special reason to do so. For example, in 2002, just 4 percent of registered voters in Dallas turned out to participate in July elections that replaced six school board members. And, of course, those motivated voters include a disproportionate number of the school system’s own employees.

The teacher unions now dominate many a school board election, or at least have the capacity to do so (see Figure 1). When the board is quiet and rocks no education boats, the union rests. But as we have seen in cities like Milwaukee and Los Angeles, when the board undertakes the kinds of reforms that the union doesn’t favor, the union will mobilize to elect friendly candidates. Thus, in 2002, the Los Angeles union unseated a majority of the reform-minded board that had selected former Colorado governor Roy Romer to lead the city’s troubled school system. Likewise, in 1995, a union-led coup in Milwaukee produced a majority on that city’s school board that reform superintendent Howard Fuller realized he could not work with.

Is it any wonder, then, that cities like New York, Chicago, and Boston have torn down the Chinese wall that was supposed to isolate school districts from city governments and placed responsibility for the schools squarely in the hands of the mayor? In these cities, there is now a single, publicly accountable official in charge, rather than nine wannabe mayors immobilizing the school system with their petty squabbles, power grabs, and turf protecting. If citizens are unhappy with the schools, they can now vote the mayor out of office. This does not eliminate democratic control over the schools; it rechannels—and strengthens—it.

Perpetuating Inequity

Local school boards exist largely to oversee the spending of funds drawn from local property taxes. In this sense, they are supposed to be the community’s accountability mechanism, ensuring that school officials use locally generated resources wisely and responsibly. However, several trends are rendering that role obsolete.

First, there is an increasing recognition that the funding system that school boards perpetuate results in unfair resource disparities between wealthy and poor school districts. It discourages the best teachers from entering the schools where they’re needed most and further segregates families by income and race. The wave of lawsuits involving school finances that have been filed against the states has resulted in states (and, indirectly, Washington) taking ever-greater responsibility for funding local public schools. In the past 50 years, the share of school spending provided by states increased from 40 percent to 50 percent, while the share provided by localities decreased from 57 percent to 43 percent. This trend will only continue.

Second, the standards and accountability movement is rendering the performance of individual schools transparent to parents and communities. Under yesterday’s system, school boards were needed to keep watch over the superintendent, assistant superintendents, and other district officials as they managed the school system. Now, however, parents can use the information gleaned from state accountability systems to assess the performance of an individual school or school system.

Third, the choice movement, including charter schools, magnet schools, vouchers, and outsourced school management, has shown us what it means to devolve authority from bureaucratic systems to individual schools and families. Power is flowing downward, to the principal, to the teaching team, and to parents themselves. Once every school is essentially a charter school, there will be no need for a centralized municipal-level body that makes decisions for an entire school system. Individual schools will respond to the needs of their families and employees while the state sets standards and monitors academic results.

School boards are supposed to provide top-down accountability. But these three trends—the steady centralization of funding, the imposition of statewide accountability systems, and the expansion of choice—are creating a system that favors bottom-up accountability and obviates the need for local boards.

Ultimately, the only way to guarantee that every child receives equal support will be for states to take responsibility for funding the schools, with help from the feds. A statewide taxation and funding system would provide a certain amount of tuition dollars to each child with the amounts varying according to individual needs. For example, disabled or severely disadvantaged children would receive more. Then the money follows the child, in a virtual “financial backpack,” to the school of the family’s choice. Once the state issues its annual report on schools’ academic progress, safety, and teachers’ qualifications, families can decide where to send their children and tuition dollars.

With this kind of information and consumer power, there is no need for a locally elected board to advocate for better curriculum or more money at the municipal level—though individual schools are apt to develop “governing boards,” as today’s charter schools have and as do public schools in England and some other countries.

This would create not only a more equitable system, but also more effective schools. Nearly everyone who has reflected on how the education system should operate tomorrow has concluded that yesterday’s locally funded, monopoly-controlled system is out of whack with the way Americans now live. The K–12 school system has not kept pace with our mobility patterns, our communications technology, and, foremost, the way we deliver everything else we value in life. Consumer choice has given America the world’s largest and most dynamic economy. It will also elicit better performance from the nation’s schools.

In the future, as choice becomes a standard feature of K–12 schooling, the education system will be composed not of centralized, government-run school districts, but of independently operated and competing education-delivery organizations. Most will be housed in traditional bricks and mortar, but some will be virtual, and a wide variety of “schools” will be found within each sector. Instead of being governed and operated by bureaucracies, these schools will answer to their customers and clients and to the expert educators who lead and teach in them.

Expect school boards to fight these changes every step of the way. After the teacher unions, the state school board association is usually the most influential conservative education force in the entire state. Here we use conservative in the classic sense of wanting to keep things exactly the way they’ve always been. At a time when a fundamental overhaul of American education is sorely needed, school boards and their associations have emerged as doughty defenders of the status quo. Fortunately, the changes being wrought by choice and accountability may soon render school boards the organizational dinosaurs of education in the 21st century.

Chester E. Finn Jr. is president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. Lisa Graham Keegan is the chief executive officer of Education Leaders Council, a member-based organization for reform-minded chief state school officers.


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Last modified: June 11, 2004

Disclaimer: This website is the sole responsibility of Mike McMahon. It does not represent any official opinions, statement of facts or positions of the Alameda Unified School District. Its sole purpose is to disseminate information to interested individuals in the Alameda community.