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Who's In Charge?

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The ebonics flap proves it: Educators should decide what's taught in the classroom, not politically minded school boards.

The Oakland, California, ebonics fiasco--albeit more controversial and newsworthy because of its unabashed endorsement of linguistic separatism--is simply another example of the egregious educational decisionmaking that is commonplace among local lay school boards nationwide. The governance structure of public schools dates to our Colonial era when community elders watched over the "little red schoolhouse" to ensure that a township's religious orthodoxy was being properly served. (Substitute "vernacular" for "religious orthodoxy," and you have the Oakland situation.)

Constitutionally, the governance of public education is a state duty, not a local function. It is the state that is legally responsible for establishing the standards and maintaining the quality of public schools. But because of tradition, delegation of authority, and political expediency, much of the fundamental state responsibility for public education has been reduced, fragmented, and turned over to local governing bodies.

If public education is in crisis (and Oakland provides evidence that it is), doesn't it make sense that some of the blame rests with the governance system? Apparently not. Regardless of the sound and fury demanding reform of public education and despite many examples of school board members pushing personal, political, religious, and now ethnocentric agendas, there is never a suggestion that perhaps the local school board is not the best way to govern schools.

The fact that local school boards originated more than 300 years ago contributes to their sacrosanct status today. History and prevailing practice (even when detrimental) are difficult forces to overcome. The power structure of public education relies on maintaining local school boards. School administrators can't be expected to criticize the very system that employs them, and no politician worthy of that calling would dare suggest that local governance of public education might no longer make sense. So despite its inadequacies, the local school board is here to stay.

Given that reality, what can be done to accentuate the positive contributions that local boards can and do make and to diminish the real and potential damage they cause? School board members should be restricted to making decisions on noneducational matters, such as budgets and capital improvements. Many school board members have expertise in such important areas and can bring that knowledge to the table.

But school board members have no business dictating classroom matters. Local boards should not determine what is taught in the schools, how it is taught, or by whom it is taught. These complex and crucial issues should be determined by educators--educators who are knowledgeable of applicable theory, research, and best practice. Issues involving course content, textbook selection, and teaching approaches should not be subject to the whims of local pressure groups or the "orthodoxy" of a few individuals making up the majority of a school board. Certainly, local citizens should have the right to ask for a review of curriculum, instructional materials, and teaching practices. But such a review should be done by an objective professional body like a state-approved accrediting association or a public university--not by a politically or ideologically motivated school board.

I don't mean to imply that professional educators alone should determine curriculum and practices. Rather, the continuing review of these issues should include a state-level public process involving all interested parties, lay and professional. But local school boards should no longer have the authority to circumvent, censor, or in any way diminish the legally adopted state standards that emerge from such a process.

Public education should follow the model of a hospital's board of directors, whose members deal with logistical matters but never practice medicine. Regardless of the model, we must bring the governance of public education out of the 17th century. We must take educational decisionmaking away from individuals who don't have a background in education and who, in increasing numbers, seem to be representing special interests aspiring to control public schools for their own purposes..n

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