Below are two recently published op-eds from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s educational blog Flypaper Opinion and News Analysis. Both editorials spark food for thought regarding the politics, governance and future of local Boards of Education.
Opinion: The anacronism of school boards
By Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Amber M. Winkler
“The local school board, especially the elected kind, is an anachronism and an outrage. We can no longer pretend it’s working well or hide behind the mantra of ‘local control of education.’ We need to steel ourselves to put this dysfunctional arrangement out of its misery and move on to something that will work for children.”
With that statement on the record, we’re doubly admiring of Anne Bryant and her colleagues at the National School Boards Association (NSBA) for welcoming us into their recent project—“School Boards Circa 2010: Governance in the Accountability Era”—a survey of roughly 900 school board members. We went into it willing to have our previous impressions of local school boards overturned. For the most part, that hasn’t happened.
Because we’re serious about America’s need for bold school reform, we came away from the survey data dismayed that so many board members appear hostile to some of the most urgently needed reforms—and accepting of timeworn (and for the most part unsuccessful) tweaks to the current system. Substantial numbers view charter schools, intra-district choice among schools, and year-round calendars as “not at all important” to improving student learning. They’re cool toward teachers entering classrooms from “nontraditional” directions. Yet they’re warm-to-hot when asked about the value of such primordial yet unreliable “reforms” as smaller classes and more professional development. And they’re more agitated about school inputs—funding above all—than about academic achievement.
||Putting it bluntly, would public education come closer to serving the country’s needs in 2011 if it were run by visionary, reform-driven leaders rather than by cautious, community-based fiduciaries?
One must wonder whether this is because they’ve grown acculturated to traditional educationist views of education—half of all board members have served in their current districts for more than five years—or because more than a quarter of them are current or former educators themselves. Could it be because so many of them in large districts (more than one in three) indicate that unions contribute to their campaigns and presumably expect something in return? Or is it that they regard their role like members of corporate boards of directors, chiefly concerned with the well-being of the organization itself (particularly its revenue streams), rather than like education policymakers, much less reformers?
There’s evidence in the NSBA data for all these possibilities—and a good many more.
Even as we applaud school board members for their service, much of it time-consuming and selfless, we cannot but wonder about some of their core values and priorities for K-12 education.
• School board members tend to cite inadequate inputs as the main barrier to improved school outcomes. Three quarters of them view insufficient funding as a strong or total barrier to raising achievement. That’s about twice as many as point to collective-bargaining agreements—and more than three times as many as identify “community apathy” as a major barrier. Yes, economic times are perilous, but stressed finances call for exploring uncharted waters, not waiting for manna from the taxpayers.
• Board members also favor intangible outcomes. Asked to rank education goals, three-fourths of the surveyed group say that “help[ing] students fulfill their potential” or “prepar[ing] students for a satisfying and productive life” is number one. Just 16 percent chose preparing students for the workforce or for college. One wonders, in our globally competitive world, how their sense of what’s important got so skewed. Do they really not put much stock in the most tangible outcomes of schooling? Are they possibly hiding from results-based accountability by selecting goals that cannot readily be measured?
• School board members have only a vague awareness that learning levels must rise. Though two-thirds concur that “the current state of student achievement is unacceptable,” barely one-quarter “strongly agree” with that statement. A whopping 87 percent agree or strongly agree that “defining success only in terms of student achievement is narrow and short-sighted; we need to emphasize the development of the whole child.” And a full one-third are nervous about placing “unreasonable expectations for student achievement in our schools.”
These data also show that board members are conscientious citizens who take the job seriously and work hard at it. They want to serve their communities, and they want kids to have good lives. Demographically, they comprise a fair cross section of middle-aged, upper-middle-class America. They’re better educated than most of the population, and their household income is greater than most. They’re moderate to conservative in their politics, they’re professionals or businessmen/women in their careers, and they serve on the board—they say—for altruistic, public-spirited motives, which is borne out by the fact that just 36 percent have children in school in the district whose board they’re on. (Of course, 70 percent are fifty or older.)
These well-meaning, solid citizens, however, do not manifest great urgency about changing the education system for which they’re responsible, certainly not in disruptive ways. Yes, they want it to do better. But they also cite myriad obstacles to changing it, obstacles they find outside themselves and their communities and thus obstacles that they, almost by definition, are powerless to overcome. Moreover, they’re principally concerned—the “board of directors” syndrome again—with the viability of the school system as an institution, fiduciaries, one might say, of a public trust rather than change agents on behalf of a compelling societal agenda.
This is not too surprising, considering that the “theory” behind elected local school boards as a public-school governance system was to induce selfless civic leaders to preside over and safeguard a valuable community institution, keeping it out of politics and out of trouble while solving whatever problems it encountered. The theory did not expect individuals elected to these roles to function as innovators, much less as revolutionaries.
The question that needs to be asked again, however, is whether American education in the twenty-first century would be better served by a different arrangement, one more apt to tally the considerable challenges facing communities, states, regions, and the nation as a whole and then reshape key institutions to meet those challenges. Putting it bluntly, would public education come closer to serving the country’s needs in 2011 if it were run by visionary, reform-driven leaders rather than by cautious, community-based fiduciaries? We’re inclined to think it would.
– BACK TO TOP –
Opinion: Back To The Future: Re-Inventing Local Control 9-26-11
Peter Meyer, Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow
As much as it pains me every time I hear Checker Finn say it, school boards may indeed be irrelevant. And Checker’s new essay in National Affairs lays out a pretty persuasive case for why they will disappear; not, why they should go away, but why they will simply die on a vine that is no longer part of a healthy education system. What is most unnerving about Checker’s argument, is that this will happen, somewhat counter-intuitively, while making “education local again.”
In short, the new essay, “Beyond the School District,” is an ambitious rethinking of school governance, top to bottom, that weds the best of our past (true local control) with the best of our present (charters, vouchers, mayoral control, technology) to create a workable school system for the 21st century.
And I hate say it, but from where I sit, on a local school board, it makes sense.
As Checker says, with an understatement that should require no argument, our current system isn’t working. And his attribution of cause surely matches my experience: we have a “confused and tangled web” of local, state, and federal rules and regulation, not to mention a web of “adult interests” like teacher unions, textbook publishers, tutoring firms, bus companies, and the like, that has thwarted the best of reform intentions. Despite spending billions of dollars to fix things, the results continue to be lousy: “millions of children still can not read satisfactorily, do math at an acceptable level, or perform the other skills need for jobs in the modern economy.”
I surely see this dysfunction at the local level, where I sit on a school board that seems to have as much influence over our schools as the deck chair manager had over the direction of the Titanic. (I would temper that statement with one that I make to my local parents and stakeholders all the time: there is no law that says we can’t have a good school. Unfortunately, the tangled web has a way of complicating that message.) Checker helps explain the problem by taking us on a grand tour of American education governance history, from the hopeful sprouting of tens of thousands of locally-controlled (and funded) school districts through the “professionalism” wave of the Progressive Era of the last century, and the ensuing consolidation craze, which reduced the number of schools districts from 130,000 in 1930 to fewer than 14,000 by 2008.
Checker skips most of the recent federalism era, which, in this account, might be redundant. But the federal role is surely an issue that will need to be addressed in Finn’s future, since it has contributed mightily to the “tangled web.” By the same token, as someone who has experienced first-hand the wonder of NCLB, which shined a light in to the dark corners of our schools, where the poor, the ethnic minorities and the disabled had been hidden from view, we will need to make sure that such abuse is not the result of unfettered local autonomy (rather than too much outside influence) and identify a federal responsibility to protect the constitutional rights of our children to equal educational opportunities; indeed, despite some wonderful people in my community, and though I know that Checker’s suggestions will go a long way to restoring “the good” of local control, not a day goes by that I don’t thank God – and James Madison and Thomas Jefferson – for our federal Bill of Rights. We will also need to recognize the debilitating influence of federal micro-managing and decide what to do about it; indeed we are in need of a robust discussion about the good, the bad, and the ugly of federal intervention and in future posts I intend to argue, among other things, that keeping the feds out of the curriculum-writing business has only lured them into creating huge highways of waste and inefficiency in much less essential educational territory.
But there is certainly no disputing – or should be no disputing — the need to “restore a true sense of local education,” as Checker argues, because “families and communities—more knowledgeable about their own desires and their children’s needs—[have to] make crucial decisions about how to educate children, rather than leaving those choices to distant, scattered, self-concerned bureaucrats and adult interest groups.”
And as I read Checker, the answer is to untether the promising reform strategies now bubbling up all over the country from the multi-layered governance system that thwarts them. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall! We have plenty of talented people working within the system, Checker says, but “they seldom have the capacity to innovate, to make judgments about matters beyond their customary duties, or to stage successful interventions in failing districts and schools” (per the “tangle” described above). Indeed, as Checker says, “new forms of local control have started to take root.” Mayoral control is one of those new governance structures — and we need that direct connection not just in big cities. My small school district, for instance is an amalgam of five local towns, none of whose mayors or legislative councils have anything to say about education. It is a disconnect between a huge part of their constituencies – parents and children – and a significant part of their economic health and well-being — education — which the local school district has little stake in.
Also, “less visible, but far more widespread,” says Checker, are the many alternatives to the traditional Local Education Agency (LEA) model: choice and charter schools, vouchers, magnet schools, virtual schools, homeschools, etc. Says Finn: “it can accurately be said that slightly more than half of all American students today attend schools that they or their parents selected.” Finally, there is technology, the invention that allows “local control…to be brought right into parents’ homes.” As a member of a dysfunctional LEA (for all the reasons Checker suggests), I would welcome the opportunity to return our schools to a system of true local control, including spinning individual schools off to their own governing bodies.
So, these many reform vehicles add up to the “direction that the future of American education should point,” as Checker says. But how do you do it? What does it look like? Here’s what he suggests:
- “Self-governing, charter-style schools should become the norm, not the exception.”
- States (the governor and legislature not some “independent” body) would “both increase and shrink their roles.” They would “authorize” every school and hold it accountable “for academic results, for complying with essential rules, for properly handling public dollars, and so forth….” They would also ensure that there are “enough approved schools to accommodate all children.” But they would “back off from their customary micromanagement and regulation of the K-12 space….”
- Local funding of schools “as we know it would vanish.” States would pay for schools – and this is one of Checker’s key proposals — through a “weighted student funding” formula in which “the amount of money devoted to a child’s education varies with his needs and educational circumstances and accompanies that child to the school of his choice.”
Again, I do worry about placing undo faith in states, whose leaders and legislatures have shown themselves to be plenty receptive to special interests, and I encourage more discussion of the federal role in thwarting monopolies, whether of private or public making.
We won’t find the answers to all our questions here, but “Beyond the School District” is a much-needed start to remaking school governance for modern times. It imagines a refreshing Tocquevilian system of free associations that would, concludes Checker, “endeavor to make education local again.” And that, for America, is to make education whole again.