Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

A Changing Context Means School Board Reform

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

A Changing Context Means School Board Reform

Article excerpt

Although it is impossible to make blanket statements about the performance of the nation's 15,000 school boards, Mr. Kirst discerns certain trends that are pointing to a refocusing of their roles.

One major problem plagues all attempts to understand and prescribe policy for school boards: there are too many school boards (about 15,000) and too many board members (some 97,000) to be able to generalize about the behavior of all boards. Consequently, the research base is confined to the study of a single case, a few comparative cases, or some nonrepresentative sample chosen for a particular purpose. Moreover, the research techniques employed range from surveys to self-assessments to full-scale case studies. The body of comprehensive self-assessment data collected by the Institute for Educational Leadership (IEL) from 266 rural/small town, suburban, and urban school boards between 1987 and 1990 is an exceptionally large database. Most research focuses on metropolitan areas or big cities. Horror stories dominate the media, and special attention is paid to conflict and operational failures. We know the least about the most common type of school board - the board of small districts.

However, one way to analyze the need for and direction of school board reform is to analyze overall trends that affect most school boards. In this article I summarize these trends and stress the way they interact in favor of major changes in school board roles, functions, and operations. If we wait for representative data on all school boards, it will be a very long time until any changes are made to improve board policy making.


The last major change in the roles and operations of urban school boards took place between 1900 and 1920. That the basic structure and role were established so long ago suggests strongly the need for a radical overhaul as we near the 21st century. Around 1900 a decentralized, ward-based committee system for administering the public schools provided the opportunities for a nationwide reform movement. In 1905, Philadelphia had 43 elected district school boards with 559 members. There were only seven members on the Minneapolis board, while Hartford, with only one-third as many people, had 39 school visitors and committeemen. While there were great variations, 16 of 28 cities with populations over 100,000 at the turn of the century had boards of 20 members or more.(1)

By 1910 the conventional wisdom had evolved among the schoolmen and the leading business and professional men who spearheaded the reforms. The watchwords of reform became centralization, expertise, professionalization, nonpolitical control, and efficiency. The governance structure needed to be revised so that school boards would be small, elected at large, and purged of all connections with political parties and officials of general government, such as mayors and councilmen. it was sometimes a very small group of patricians who secured new charters from state legislatures and thereby reorganized the urban schools without the fuss of a popular vote. These reform concepts spread rapidly from large cities to small, in part through the efforts of the National Education Association, which at the time was dominated by school administrators.

While the turn-of-the-century reformers tried to model the revamped school board on the big corporations, they left the board with a mandate to oversee and become involved in all areas of local school operation. The American school board combines the legislative, executive, and judicial functions of government. This role is too expansive and often leads boards to try to do everything by not doing much of anything in depth.

School boards play a legislative role when they adopt budgets, pass regulations, and set policies. Moreover, they provide the constituent-services component of a legislator's district office. Parents phone board members about fixing showers in locker rooms, relocating school crossing guards, and reclassifying children placed in special education. …

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