Do School Boards Matter?
Takeovers, Local Governance, and the Public Trust
What would happen if there were no school boards? That is not an idle question. Local school boards are part of the American landscape, yet they are increasingly under attack. Understanding what is at stake requires understanding why school boards exist at all.
The school board is not an accidental creation. As Americans, most of us believe in the democratic concept of lay control of political functions, from the statehouse to Capitol Hill. The process begins with our local schools. We trust that reasoned people who are not "education experts" are qualified to set policy and govern the schools, to represent the "public" in public education. After all, education, in large part, reflects community values. Who better to set the policy and direction for this values-laden enterprise than local community members? That is why we elect (or, in some few cases, appoint) public-minded citizens to the local school board, where they are charged with articulating the needs of the community to the schools and the needs of the schools to the community.
And yet, some pundits question whether school boards should exist at all. Are boards relevant? Do they matter? (A 2009 Report on the role of school boards.)
Yes, school boards are relevant. And yes, they matter.
For generations, the public has trusted school boards to balance community goals and values with the needs of the children in their care. But that trust has frayed in recent years as the public schools have come under the nation’s microscope. Today, 24 of 50 states have passed laws that allow for the takeover of districts with academic problems, and mayors in several urban centers are now in charge of their district’s governance and operations.
The growing role of the state and federal government in education underscores the need for a representative local body specifically charged with providing a sound academic grounding for every student. This is the school board’s mission, and it is a singular one. A system run by politicians is, by necessity, mired in and must compete with all of the other municipal services and priorities that demand a busy public official’s attention. Not so with the school board, whose sole responsibility is education.
Transferring control of a school district’s governance to a mayor, county manager, or state legislature also widens the gap between parents and the key decision makers who have direct oversight of public education. School boards are accountable to the public – 96 percent of the 95,000 members in our nation’s 14,890 school districts are elected. And, they are accessible.
This sort of access is difficult – or unavailable – under other forms of governance. How difficult will it be for community members to have direct access to a mayor – especially in a large city such as New York or Philadelphia – to discuss a problem in their neighborhood school?
Local involvement is essential because school governance is unique. Schools touch us all at some point in our lives. We have all been in a classroom, and because of this intensely personal experience, we all have opinions about how schools should operate. (Just think of how many times you have heard the phrase, "When I was in school…")
At the same time, 75 to 80 percent of today’s population does not have school-age children, which means many people are removed from the classrooms and education issues of today. At a time when education is one of our nation’s top priorities, many of our connections to schools come not from firsthand knowledge, but from what we hear on the street and what we read in the newspaper.
When a board is divided on a critical issue in the community, it often means the community is divided. As with any form of government, the only way to build consensus is to discuss, debate, and, ultimately, make the best and most informed decision that is in the best interest of all children.
Those who support takeovers would prefer to squelch this town hall-style approach. They contend that putting career politicians in charge allows for radical, and necessary, changes in low-performing school districts. But those radical changes often require added resources – resources that have been stubbornly unavailable to districts, sometimes for decades.
A takeover also assumes – falsely – that states or mayors have the ability to effectively govern and manage a school district. Since 1988, 19 states have taken over 49 districts, and the results have been mixed. In New Jersey, for example, the state abolished the school board and took control of the Jersey City School District 13 years ago, but it has not been able to meet its own standards for making the district independent. West Virginia took over the Logan County School District in 1992, but the school board and administrators stayed on as advisors, and the district was returned to local control four years later.
The most effective districts are the ones that have a strong partnership among the schools, the community, and the home. The school board is your liaison, your partner. That’s why school boards should continue to exist, evolve, and serve our children.
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