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Broker, Buffer, And Brake

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Many times over my nine years on the Fairbanks, Alaska, board of education, I've agreed with critics who believe the school-governance system is dysfunctional and obstructionist. Our board has wasted hours on trivia, such as deciding whether the first semester should end before or after Christmas. Some board members have tried to micromanage the purchasing department, instructional supervision, even the hiring of aides. On occasion, board members squabble among themselves and with the superintendent. It is not easy for us to address consistently the main educational issues. This experience has prompted my sympathy for those who, like Chester E. Finn Jr., suggest that school boards be eliminated.

What makes the unique American system of school governance worth saving, however, are three indispensable roles of school boards: broker, buffer, and brake.

Our board, for example, is an excellent agent and advocate for schoolchildren and educators. This year, all board members lobbied state legislators for full foundation funding (achieved) and gained an increased contribution from local taxpayers. The administration and board aggressively sought funding for new school construction from the state and federal governments. We raised science, numeracy, and literacy standards well before this became a national trend. The success we've attained in presenting our needs to superior governments is directly related to our care in responding to the demands of those who speak for children. Countless hours spent at budget and program hearings and in negotiations with teachers and other employees, and responsible management decisions, make our agency and advocacy credible.

As buffer, our board has insulated schoolchildren and educators from most of the culture wars of the 1980s and 90s. Opponents of the "Impressions" reading series, for example, brought a reformed witch to Fairbanks' crowded convention center, but could not convince the public's representatives that the anthology was "occult and satanic." Debates over sex education, "scientific creationism," the HIV-AIDS curriculum, the firing of popular teachers on morals charges--all took place in public, following orderly procedures and with generous public input. These emotional and explosive debates over curriculum and instruction occurred in public meetings and they influenced school board election campaigns. The controversies had little impact on classrooms.

Some boards have gone on point for particular education reforms, but ours sticks to the center, preferring to brake social and educational change. Representative bodies are skilled at anticipating objections to doing things differently, and school boards sprout critics of the latest fad who rightly ask how it would advance learning in their district. Thus, our board has not yet adopted performance standards, because the critical questions haven't yet been answered.

Given the complex nature of the education process--with multiple, conflicting goals, fragmented powers, a tangled skein of laws and regulations, and a highly diverse student population--this incremental approach to change seems to work best.

As an educator myself, and a seasoned observer of nations like Japan, Germany, and Taiwan whose educational professionals command public schools, I often think our national assessment profile might be higher if we axed school boards. My experience on the Fairbanks board, however, tells me that we have the kind of governance system we need to produce the results our community wants.

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