Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Weighing the Case for School Boards Today and Tomorrow: School Boards Are a Flawed Form of Governance but Still Serviceable. the More Pressing Task Is to Rethink the School District Itself

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Weighing the Case for School Boards Today and Tomorrow: School Boards Are a Flawed Form of Governance but Still Serviceable. the More Pressing Task Is to Rethink the School District Itself

Article excerpt

School boards govern school districts. That raises two linked questions: the desirability of boards as a form of governance and of districts as a way to organize schooling. Reform proposals routinely ignore this second question. This is a mistake, and it complicates governance challenges with organizational ones.

That said, let's start by presuming that, for the moment, districts are a fact of life. The question is how they ought to be governed. Advocates of mayoral control, such as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, have suggested that mayoral control is a precondition for serious school improvement.

I have sympathy for such claims. Especially in dysfunctional, troubled, big-city school systems, I have previously argued, "Urban school districts are so hidebound, school boards frequently so tangled in distractions, and coherence and patience so absent from the organizational DNA that handing the reins over to an active, engaged, and accountable mayor may be the better bet" (Hess 2008). But all districts are not big-city school systems. At most, a hundred--less than 1%--of the nation's 14,000 districts are in big cities. Yet, as is so often the case, we risk allowing a few well-known examples to fuel a rush toward one-size-fits-all policy making.

So, let's consider the merits of school boards and mayoral control. The truth is that the benefits of mayoral control are not uniform; they vary with context. Indeed, elected boards have real strengths, and these ought not to be discounted--in some cases, these outweigh the problems of board governance, and in some they do not.

THE FRAILTIES OF SCHOOL BOARDS

There are at least four fairly damning critiques of school boards that are frequently offered. All are, to greater or lesser degrees, legacies of the Progressive Era effort to separate education governance from politics. In fact, most calls for mayoral control or appointment suppose that school governance is hampered not by too much politics, but by the wrong kind of politics or by too little disciplined political leadership. The four indictments are familiar, but that doesn't make them any less compelling.

First, a lack of voter attention makes it difficult for voters to hold their representatives accountable. Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Lisa Graham Keegan have observed, "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" (2004: 15). Sixty-two percent of superintendents and 69% of board members themselves agree that school board meetings are "dominated by people with special interests and agendas" (Farkas, Foley, and Duffett 2001: 15). It's hard to count on elections to keep public officials in line when the public doesn't know who's in office. Public Agenda has reported that 63% of adults, and 50% of parents, say they can't name their local superintendent and that 62% of adults, and 48% of parents, couldn't name one member of the local school board. As Public Agenda explains, "Most people, for whatever reason, are simply not active in or mindful of school affairs on a routine basis" (Farkas, Foley, and Duffett 2001: 15)

Second, electoral apathy allows mobilized constituencies, especially teachers unions, to exert disproportionate influence. Based on a national survey of more than 500 school districts, I reported with David Leal a few years ago, "teachers unions are generally the leading interest group in local school board politics, that influence is greater in larger, more urbanized districts" (Hess and Leal 2005: 249). Stanford professor Terry Moe has documented union success in electing favored candidates in California. He finds that school board candidates endorsed by the union win 76% of the time, while others win just 31% of the time (Moe 2005: 273). …

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