Education Commentary

Our Colonial-Era Approach to Governance

By Dennis L. Evans — November 13, 1991 5 min read

Recently a colleague of mine reached the final round of interviews for a district-level administrative position. Her final interview was with members of the local board of education. The first question she was asked was something along the lines of, “What is your vision for this district and what is your strategic plan to realize that vision?” While that’s not too bad a question, it was her answer that caused me to reflect on the nature of the organizational structure of public schools. Her answer was, “Whatever the board wants it to be!”

To some that may seem to be a rather flippant response; others may see it as a clever avoidance of a difficult and complex question. To me, the answer symbolizes the deleterious impact that the lay school board has on schooling in the United States. Top-level school administrators are beholden to the local board of education for their very existence in the profession. The board hires, evaluates (at least in theory), and fires district-level administrators. Most assuredly, top-level school administrators understand the practical and self-serving wisdom of my colleague’s response. (Incidentally, she got the job.)

The origins of the local school board are a part of our national heritage. Our first “public” schools were “charity schools,” established to educate the children of the poor who could not afford church schools and private academies. Influential local leaders, often church elders, served as overseers of these charity schools to guarantee that the “schoolmarm” taught the particular brand of religious orthodoxy practiced in that locale.

As the country developed and charity schools evolved into common schools and still later into public schools, the concept of “overseeing” remained. The sectarian, religious orientation of the overseers may have been eliminated (although in some jurisdictions that may be disputed) and their voluntary, appointive status has been replaced by the elective system, but their fundamental role as the “guardians” of the public’s interest in education remains as originally conceived.

The localized nature of school boards is also rounded in our revolutionary heritage and reflects a populist distrust of centralized authority. It was not by accident that the framers of the Constitution were silent on education and then, by way of the 10th Amendment, “reserved” the legal authority over public schools to the individual states. But that distrust of centralism also extended to state-level authority and thus the local, insular nature of the school board was not only perpetuated but quickly became ranked with flag, apple pie, and motherhood as idealized and sacrosanct “untouchables” of the American way of life.

So it is that public education in the United States has come to be governed by two levels of lay authority: the state legislature and the local school board. Woe be it to anyone, especially any political figure, who might suggest that the concept and practice of lay governance of public education is an ill-fitting anachronism that makes little sense in our complex society. How is it that with all of the various demands for the reform and restructuring of public education, we rarely see or hear even the most oblique suggestion that perhaps we need to examine the lay governance of public education?

To his credit, the former assistant secretary of education Chester E. Finn Jr. has presented, in these pages, a strong and eloquent case against the current construct of local control (“Reinventing Local Control,” Commentary, Jan. 23, 1991), but his thesis is that potential developments such as a national curriculum and national assessment will eventually make school boards impotent. In a similar fashion, John Chubb and Terry Moe, in extolling the virtues of parental choice of schools, also suggest that the local school board will eventually be rendered superfluous by the implementation of the choice concept.

Why is it that no one is willing to state categorically that a colonial-era approach to governance is no longer acceptable for our schools? Whether or not we eventually move toward the nirvana of a national curriculum or, in the other direction, toward the utopia of parental choice is irrelevant in terms of the status of lay governance. If, for the sake of argument, we accept the oft-stated assertion that the institution of public education is in a state of crisis, does it not make sense that a major share of the blame for that condition must be placed on the governance system that drives that institution? If substantive and systemic changes are to come to public education, then the governance structure itself must first change.

It is ironic that one of the most open and compelling criticisms of lay governance of public education comes from school-board members themselves. In commenting on the low assessments board members gave themselves as part of a study conducted by the Institute for Educational Leadership, the president of the National School Boards Association, Arlene Penfield, stated that the “low self-assessments on the I.E.L. study are due in part to the character of most board members, who typically receive no salary and have limited time to spend on overwhelming challenges.”

Referring to the same study, the executive director of the N.S.B.A. Thomas Shannon, said that the same criticisms made of school boards “could be said of city councils, boards of supervisors, state legislatures, and the Congress.”

“When you have a representative government,” Mr. Shannon said, “nothing is reformed radically overnight.”

To Ms. Penfield, I would respectfully suggest that perhaps public education deserves a leadership/governance structure wherein the responsible individuals would not have “limited time” to deal with their “challenges.” To Mr. Shannon, I would say that our schools are not systems or levels of representative government. The leadership/governance of schools should not be subject to the same political pressures, compromises, and dealmaking that characterize local, state, and national levels of government.

From first-hand knowledge, I know that most school-board members are outstanding citizens who are doing a job that most people don’t want. Unfortunately, as their leader Ms. Penfield implies, school-board members are in an impossible situation. We must find the courage to eliminate lay governance of public education and to establish a system wherein educational leaders will never again state that their “vision for education” is whatever “the school board wants.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 13, 1991 edition of Education Week as Our Colonial-Era Approach to Governance