A new study of the nation's school boards paints a picture of these citizen-based volunteer groups as hard working but tradition bound, resistant to many of the reforms being advocated to improve the nation's failing schools. This conclusion leads one of the report's contributors, Chester Finn, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, to call for "putting this dysfunctional arrangement out of its existence and [moving] on to something that will work for children."
The study, published by National School Boards Association, the Fordham Institute and the Iowa School Boards Foundation, gathered responses from more than 1,000 board members representing 418 districts. The study acknowledges that school boards are little examined and poorly understood — this, despite the fact that more than 90 percent of school board members are elected to their positions. (Unlike most districts, where boards represent small clusters of schools and have taxing powers, districts in Maryland are aligned with counties and depend on state and local support.)
Reforms are happening more in spite of local boards than because of them. According to Frederick Hess, one of the authors of the new report, "Governance in the Accountability Era," the majority of board members are skeptical of "reformist" approaches to retooling districts, such as recruiting nontraditional teachers, within-district school choice, year-round school and charter schools. For example, charters in Maryland have had a difficult time getting a foothold outside of Baltimore City, largely due to resistance from local boards. The Iowa School Boards Foundation, another contributor, noted that a significant number of boards continue to operate as they always have — in ways "not associated with gains in student achievement." Even U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has called for overhauling a failed status quo by giving big-city mayors, rather than local school boards, control of their schools.
School boards have been around in one form or another since Colonial days. Their numbers peaked in 1930 at 127,000 but have dwindled to 14,000 today. Charged with overall district governance, board responsibilities include setting district policy, budgeting, personnel, legal issues, special education, contract negotiations and school construction. Despite this impressive list, the work of the boards has been increasingly marginalized by mandates at federal and state levels. Additionally, in the past year, 42 states voluntarily adopted a sweeping new set of instructional standards, called common core standards, with little or no involvement of local school boards. Maryland was one of the first states to adopt the standards.
Boards vary greatly in the makeup of their members and their effectiveness. Some have done very well at embracing reforms. Last fall, the National School Board Association recognized Baltimore's school board as "one of the most successful governing bodies in American education today," and a number of other Maryland districts have been recognized for their progress. As the report suggests, districts with this kind of success could provide valuable lessons for others to follow.
Without intending to do so, the study raises the question of whether 14,000 locally determined boards are the best way to govern the nation's schools in this data-driven time of heightened accountability. Many feel that the work has gotten too involved and complex for citizen volunteer groups. Some recommend expanded federal involvement, while others suggest taking some of the responsibilities away from local boards (such as the construction and maintenance of facilities) in order to increase their focus on student achievement.
In either case, school boards will not be going away any time soon. They will remain a factor in their local communities, but the question is what their role will be in determining future governance of U.S. schools. As Lorraine McDonnell, a political science professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said, "We've had these reforms in recent years, from standards, to charter schools, to choice, but nobody who created these policies seemed to think about the implications for the school boards."
Whatever their fate, the final decision on who runs our schools should not be based on what's best for school board members but, rather, what's best for children.
James Campbell, a former member of the Baltimore City Board of School Commissioners, works as a senior communications manager for the Johns Hopkins School of Education. His e-mail is email@example.com.