Associations Try To Be ‘All Things to All People’

By Karen Diegmueller — April 29, 1992 9 min read
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The National School Boards Association and its state affiliates have not exactly made names for themselves as reformers.

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The associations view their jobs, first and foremost, as serving the interests of school boards. And if those interests do not always coincide with the interests of others in the education community, so be it.

“We are to school-board members what the bar association is to lawyers, what the medical association is to doctors, what the bankers’ association is to bankers,’' says T.E. (Ted) Davidson, the executive director of the Iowa Association of School Boards. “We function as a trade association for school-board members.’'

It is as lobbyists that the state associations enjoy their greatest visibility, but it is also the role that reaps them the most criticism.

In this latest wave of school reform, school-boards associations have often criticized the move toward school-based management and shared decisionmaking.

They have also been less than enthusiastic about the creation of teacher-majority professional-standards boards at the state level. And the N.S.B.A. gave a cool reception in 1986 to a report by the Carnegie Task Force on Teaching as a Profession, complaining that it failed to recognize the central role of school boards in running schools.

The associations’ generally negative reactions to proposals to professionalize teaching, observers say, stem from school boards’ role as employers; the bottom line, they say, is that boards are concerned about keeping the price of teachers affordable.

In general, Chester E. Finn Jr., a professor of education and public policy at Vanderbilt University, argues, the N.S.B.A. remains “among the toughest and most conservative forces in American education.’'

Of the five overriding goals adopted by the organization in its 1990-91 resolutions, beliefs, and policies, he writes, “all pertain to the group’s power, influence, membership services, and relations with sister organizations.’'

Warding Off ‘Blows’

This spring, the N.S.B.A. faced what it termed a “critical test’’ for local school boards. A bill introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives called for any district that wished to apply for federal school-improvement money to set up local planning committees to draft reform plans.

The committees would have had broad authority, independent of school boards, to make policy decisions about such matters as education goals and curricula.

Arguing that the precedent of creating such independent bodies would have been a “devastating blow’’ to school boards, the N.S.B.A. successfully lobbied to bring the committees under the boards’ control.

Representative Bill Goodling, a Republican from Pennsylvania and a spon
sor of the bill, says he wanted to make the local committees independent because he thought such an approach was the most promising way to encourage innovation.

“To give school boards total veto power ... could easily eliminate the whole idea of systemic change,’' Mr. Goodling says.

Retorts Thomas A. Shannon, the executive director of the N.S.B.A., “If school boards are going to do the job, we expect them not to be undercut by advisory groups or other groups in the community.’'


In New York, meanwhile, the state school-boards association has focused its considerable resources on trying to influence plans to establish shared-decisionmaking committees throughout the state.

Last year, the New York State School Boards Association spent $390,000 on lobbying, making it the third-largest spender in Albany after New York City and the state hospitals’ association.

The association employs five full-time lobbyists. Louis Grumet, the executive director, devotes about 40 percent of his time to lobbying legislators, the New York State Board of Regents, and other state officials.

In an all-out effort, the N.Y.A.A.B.A. tried for a year to block the committees. Last month, the regents finally approved a measure that includes parents and teachers in the decisionmaking process at schools.

The regulations, however, leave final decisions to school boards.

Antonia Cortese, the first vice president of the New York State United Teachers, says the association “seems to be naysayers about most everything.’'

“Being critical has its place,’' she says, “as long as you offer alternatives.’'

The N.Y.S.S.B.A., Mr. Grumet says, opposes having the teachers’ unions select teachers for the committees--not the inclusion of teachers and parents on the panels themselves.

The executive director is accustomed to fending off criticism. Because of its aggressive stance, the association frequently comes under attack--sometimes even from school-board members.

In March, the Monroe County School Boards Association, which represents 40 school boards and districts, complained in a letter to the N.Y.S.S.B.A. about the association’s attacks on the education commissioner, the regents, and legislators.

The state association’s resignation from a state coalition of education groups created four decades ago to promote funding and policy also triggered the letter.

“We felt that you could gain more by cooperatively working with groups rather than by being hostile,’' explains John J. Woods, the executive director of the Monroe association.

Mr. Grumet says the coalition was not important, accomplished little, and barred some education groups.

The criticism from Monroe County, he says, is caused by the frustration of people “who like to think of themselves as educators rather than politicians.’'

That posture is doomed in the current political climate, he says.

“We’re only obstructionist in the sense that we didn’t do what [others] wanted,’' Mr. Grumet says.

Advocates for Change

The North Carolina School Boards Association, which is widely regarded as a leader in the state’s efforts to improve its schools, stands in marked contrast to the New York association.

It was the North Carolina School Boards Association that proposed a strong state receivership for academically bankrupt districts. It was the school-boards association that supported site-based decisionmaking. And it is the association’s executive director, Gene Causby, who has traveled the state drumming up support for strong measures of accountability.

“This is not a group that I would have expected this from when [reform] began,’' observes John Dornan, the president of the Public School Forum of North Carolina. “Had it not been for the [N.C.S.B.A.], I don’t think the state would have gone as far as it did.’'

Mr. Dornan’s views are shared by many others in the state, including G. Thomas Houlihan, the superintendent of the Johnston County schools.

“The bottom line in North Carolina is, the officers in the school-boards association do not fall into the typical good-old-boy system,’' he says. “There are many, many outspoken advocates for change.’'

“Their example has given local boards the impetus and the courage to try some things that perhaps they would not be willing to try to do,’' Mr. Houlihan adds.

While advocating reform, the North Carolina association has not neglected its constituents’ needs, school-board members say.

“If our local board felt we needed a specific session on a new law, we could call them up, and they would put together the resources and help us set up training sessions,’' says Clarence Lemons, a board member in Granville County.

Unlike some teachers'-union leaders, who have acknowledged dragging their constituents along the road to reform, Mr. Causby says his members were ready.

“We had a choice,’' he explains. “We could continue to react to change, or we could attempt to shape change. I like to think we chose the latter.’'

Training and Publications

In addition to lobbying, the school-boards associations provide a variety of services to their members.

Among the most important, association directors say, are the training sessions they offer to board members.

“I would say the future of school-boards associations is going to rest largely on our ability to help board members understand what they are to do and how they do it,’' Mr. Davidson of the Iowa association says.

“Failing to do that,’' he says, “somewhere down the road, at some time, school boards may be looked upon as being archaic and useless.’'

School districts foot the bill for membership in the associations, while the N.S.B.A. makes most of its money from its annual convention.

In New York State, membership dues cover 54 percent of the association’s $4-million budget. Current dues range from $550 to $5,900, depending on the size of a district’s budget.

State associations put out a broad range of publications and special reports to keep their members abreast of legislation, legal opinions, and other school-related issues. California’s school-boards association, for example, recently published a 75-page report outlining ways for schools to meet the national education goals.

The associations also conduct research, such as a report recently released by the N.S.B.A. examining the segregation of Hispanic students in schools.

Members also have access to a range of legal services.

Each month, the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education Journal reports on bungling by the hypothetical Nutmeg Board of Education and outlines the approach the board should have taken.

The N.Y.S.S.B.A., meanwhile, boasts that it filed more friend-of-the-court briefs in 1990-91 than any other membership organization in the state.

‘All Things to All People’

While the associations in New York State and North Carolina have earned distinct reputations, most state organizations fall somewhere in between.

The Iowa Association of School Boards, for example, is seen as a partner, if not a leader, by educators and business people in that state.

“They are trying to be all things to all people, and that creates some difficulty for them,’' says Gary Wegenke, the superintendent of schools in Des Moines.

Some of the state’s school boards are “very progressive,’' notes Jamie Robert Vollmer, the director of operations for the Iowa Business and Education Roundtable. “Others, I have seen argue over the color paint on the boys’ locker room.’'

The composition of the association is one reason it has not taken a stronger leadership role, observers say.

“Usually, you do not wind up getting people who want to lead the charge,’' Mr. Vollmer says, “because they have to be true to those people who pay their dues. I think that is probably good internal politics on their part. If they lead, it would be professional suicide.’'

A version of this article appeared in the April 29, 1992 edition of Education Week as Boards of Contention: Associations Try To Be ‘All Things to All People’


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