Local control of schools implies to many Americans the existence of a small group from the community to oversee elementary and secondary education in order to safeguard and promote the well-being of students. This vision of the school board is synonymous with democracy in the minds of people. Yet, the arrangement does not always optimize learning outcomes and put youngsters on track for fulfilling and productive lives, stirring up questions about whether there are more effective ways to govern schools.
In part, the issue revolves around who sits on school boards and how they attain those positions. There are few tests for service other than the usual requirements that one reside in the district and be a citizen. Members may have doctoral degrees or may not even have completed high school. They may possess detailed knowledge of education or know little more than what they gleaned during their own school days. More than 90 percent gain their positions through school board elections, and fewer than 10 percent are appointed.
The problem—whether elected or appointed—is how to get the most qualified individuals on these boards, where members (usually unpaid) may encounter contention, hard work, and few psychic rewards. Educational quality may be at stake when school board candidates care about only a single issue or have no motivation but to restrain spending. In years past, school boards frequently attracted leading citizens who accepted positions with a sense of noblesse oblige, viewing their service as part of what they owed others. There was more than a hint of elitism to their board membership, and white males disproportionately held these seats.
Today, the nation has grown more egalitarian and diverse and fewer paragons serve, making school boards more democratic, more representative of the population at large. The downside, though, is that some men and women may pursue and seek to retain seats not so much to contribute to the next generation as to wield power and enhance their own standing. Board membership, for some, is the only source of influence and prestige they will ever have.
One touchy issue revolves around the propriety of teachers and other current and former employees of school systems serving as board members. While they provide an insider’s view, which can be valuable, their objectivity and impartiality may be compromised. In some states, they may even be prohibited from voting on certain matters, depriving the board of the full participation of its members.
Educational quality may be at stake when school board candidates care about only a single issue or have no motivation but to restrain spending.
I joined a board on which I sat with a retired teacher from our school system—whose wife and two sons worked for the district—and a current teacher from a neighboring school system. Another board member was the son of a former teacher in our system and yet another was the husband of a teacher in the district. On top of this, the acting superintendent’s wife worked in our system. Ideally, members would have fewer encumbrances.
Reformers over the years sought to separate school boards from politics by having candidates run without party labels and by conducting elections at a time when candidates would not be swept up by the frenzy of partisan politics. At least one-third of districts hold their elections on days and times of the year, typically in the spring, when no other elections occur. This practice tends somewhat to insulate school elections, but it contributes to low voter turnout.
School boards, elected and appointed, have a common shortcoming in that many members take their seats with virtually no preparation for the tasks that await them. Even during their continued service, some do not delve deeply into the tenets of governance and the ins and outs of curriculum and instruction, though they vote on the adoption of textbooks and courses of study. Boards might perform better if members had more opportunities for sustained training. Public schools are learning organizations. Board members normally understand the imperative to provide professional development for educators, but do not as readily recognize their own need for growth.
The challenges facing school boards in all locales may have more in common than some people realize. A study carried out by the Institute for Educational Leadership in 1986 found many more similarities than differences, regardless of demographics, when respondents rated boards for effectiveness. All members tended to look similarly on strategies for communicating with their constituencies, capacity of board members to make informed decisions, board-superintendent relationships, and use of time.
The notion that school systems might thrive without school boards, given their various limitations, is not a new one. As long ago as the 1930s, when there were still tens of thousands of boards of education, some prominent educators proposed abolishing school boards and suggested that superintendents assume most of the responsibilities.
Louis V. Gerstner Jr., the former chief executive of IBM and a longtime advocate of school reform, argued in a Wall Street Journal op-ed essay in December of 2008 for no more than 70 school districts in the entire country as a way to improve governance. Each of the 50 states would have a school board, as well as each of the country’s 20 largest cities. Yet, consolidation is controversial. Issues of democracy get conflated with questions over differing tax wealth, the value of physical plants, employee pay scales, and contract provisions.
None of the proposals for reducing the number of school boards (now 13,809) or for banishing them altogether is a sure-fire way to bolster student achievement, which, really, ought to be the main reason to favor one type of governance structure over another. There is scant evidence that achievement would rise if there were fewer school boards or none at all. Similarly, little research exists to attest to the value of ceding control of the average school district to a mayor or to a state education department.
On the other hand, could it be that school boards would focus more closely on student learning if they were charged with fewer duties? This might happen, for example, if members did not have to worry about such areas as maintenance, facilities, pupil transportation, and food services. County or regional authorities could take on these responsibilities or they could be privatized.
Whatever might occur to alter governance, school boards will not vanish—even if, eventually, consolidation leaves fewer of them. By and large, the public wants local school boards, and state legislators are not about to eliminate them despite the flaws. The idea of governing from the grassroots adds to the appeal that boards have with the public. Too many Americans would consider any other arrangement undemocratic, however questionable their notions of democracy may be.
Gene I. Maeroff is a senior fellow at Teachers College, Columbia University, and the president of the school board in Edison, N.J. He adapted these comments — which first appeared in Education Week — from his new book, School Boards in America: A Flawed Exercise in Democracy, which Palgrave Macmillan published in December 2010. More information is available at www.genemaeroff.com. This commentary may not be reprinted or republished without the expressed, written consent of Palgrave Macmillan.