Redefine Role, Duties of School Boards To Focus on Policy

By Lynn Olson — April 08, 1992 9 min read

Local school boards should be reconstituted to focus more on education policy and less on the “micromanagement’’ of their districts, a widely anticipated report released last week argues.

The report concludes that many school boards have been obstacles to--rather than forces for--fundamental change in education: a problem that it attributes primarily to their tendency to become “immersed in the day-to-day administration’’ of schools.

“While a separate local school-governance body may well be the right choice,’' it continues, “the role and responsibilities of such a body should be thoroughly redefined.’'

The report, by a 19-member task force of educators, journalists, and businesspeople, was sponsored by the Twentieth Century Fund and the Danforth Foundation, two private philanthropies.

Officials of the National School Boards Association last week challenged the task force’s conclusions, arguing that many school boards already fulfill their policymaking function.

The idea that any “radical redefinition’’ of school boards is needed “incorrectly assumes that the governance of 15,350 local public-school districts across the United States ... is monolithic,’' said Arlene R. Penfield, the president of the N.S.B.A.

Thomas A. Shannon, the organization’s executive director, said there is “absolutely no substantiation’’ for claims that school boards have stood in the way of reform.

“That sort of statement is scape-goating at its ultimate,’' he said.

‘An Indictment’

The report of the Task Force on School Governance reflects the increasing scrutiny that school boards have come under in recent years. With many educators and policymakers pushing for national education standards on the one hand, and advocating school-based management on the other, some wonder what role is left for local boards of education. In addition, the turmoil and mismanagement that characterize many big-city boards have resulted in widespread media coverage.

The task force’s complaints about school boards include a long list of particulars that, it charges, “can be read as an indictment of the current system of school governance.’'

The evidence includes low voter turnout in school-board elections; the tendency of board members to represent individual constituencies, rather than the needs of the larger community; their ability to tolerate district misadministration; and their failure to coordinate activities with other branches of local government, such as departments health, child-care agencies, and protective and juvenile services.

In many large cities, the report notes, “constructive board-superintendent relationships have collapsed almost entirely.’'

In 1990, 20 of the 25 largest urban school superintendencies were vacant. And, the report notes, most big-city superintendents stay in their jobs for fewer than three years.

But the problems of lay governance are not limited to urban areas, the task force says.

“A lot of the smaller school districts are not performing an adequate education-policy role either,’' said Michael W. Kirst, the executive director of the task force and a professor of education at Stanford University.

“The biggest problem in some of these other districts,’' he said, “is complacency about the quality of the educational policies they have.’'

The report notes that state reform efforts of the 1980’s tended to bypass school boards entirely, on the grounds that boards were “not sufficiently vigilant’’ in addressing what was taught, how it was taught, who should teach it, and how the results should be measured.

Experiments Welcome

During the past few years, the task force points out, a chorus of disgruntled policymakers has suggested a number of far-reaching proposals designed to tackle the problems with local school governance. They include:

  • Allowing schools to operate under a contract, or a so-called “charter,’' with a school district to free them from most existing rules and regulations.
  • Contracting out the management of a school system.
  • Merging school boards with children’s-policy boards that would address a broader array of youth issues.
  • Creating elected committees at the school site and endowing them with substantial authority.
  • Merging education with general-purpose government.
  • Doing away with school boards entirely, allowing states to directly run schools.

According to the task force, such experiments “should be welcomed and their results monitored closely.’'

But it questions whether most states and communities would be willing to support such radical reforms.

Do’s and Dont’s

Instead, the task force advocates basic improvements in school-board governance “while retaining the familiar form of democratically chosen citizen boards.’'

The education-policy boards that it proposes would be responsible for setting broad policy guidelines, establishing oversight procedures, defining standards of accountability, and ensuring adequate planning for future needs.

Professionals could then oversee the details of running public schools within the constraints and policy parameters set by the board.

According to Mr. Kirst, “there are school boards functioning around the U.S. very close to what we’re talking about.’'

“We’re really looking, in some ways, at the best practice of some school boards and some state school-boards associations,’' he added.

But, Mr. Kirst argued, states have provided little guidance to most school boards about what they should do differently.

For example, while policy boards should help define curriculum frameworks, the task force recommends, they should not engage in curriculum development.

Although they should set budget priorities, they should not vote on contracts for limited amounts.

And while they should establish broad goals for labor agreements and approve the final contracts, they should not participate in the negotiating process. (See box, this page.)

Similarly, policy boards should be responsible for hiring a superintendent and a few senior administrators. But they should not interview or approve prospective principals. Principals’ jobs should be filled according to the personnel policies set by the board.

One of the most important tasks reserved for such boards, according to the task force, is the convening of community forums on major issues of education policy. In addition, policy boards should have the authority to appoint citizen/consultant panels to provide them with expert advice.

Starting Over

According to the report, the responsibility for creating such entities rests largely with state governments.

“School boards exist because state governments choose to create them,’' it notes. And states have been responsible for many of the constraints under which boards now operate.

As an example, it points to the five-volume California Education Code, which is “cluttered with outmoded regulations and duties required of school boards, deflecting them from their policymaking role and needlessly inhibiting local flexibility.’'

The task force proposes that states repeal all current laws and regulations specifying the duties, functions, selection, and role of school boards.

In their place, the report urges, states should give boards broad policymaking authority. And they should set clear performance criteria to hold them accountable for student progress and effective management.

Only by limiting their own governance role, the report notes, can states foster the development of effective policymaking bodies.

The report also recommends that third parties assist boards in designing and carrying out evaluations of their performance, including how board policies are implemented.

The task force also advocates that states create Children and Youth Coordinating Boards to better integrate youth services. Local policy boards could then link their activities to broader children’s issues under the supervision of such bodies.

Urban Solutions

In the nation’s largest cities, the report calls for more drastic measures.

Where city and school-district boundaries are identical or nearly congruent, it asserts, there should be a much closer relationship between school boards and the general government.

It suggests that board members be appointed, with the majority of appointments made by the mayor based on the recommendations of a broadly based screening panel.

Accountability for the coordination of education and other children’s services would also reside in the mayor’s office.

Until such changes occur, the task force adds, large urban systems should use a mix of at-large and district-based elections to select board members, with a majority of the board “representing a citywide perspective.’'

The proposal addresses a widespread perception that many urban board members represent their own neighborhoods at the expense of the larger community.

But task-force members were divided on how far to go in changing urban school boards.

William H. Kolberg, the president of the National Alliance of Business and a task-force member, said, “I think it’s worth treating schools as part of general-purpose government and making the mayor and the council responsible for their operation.’'

Others questioned the wisdom of increasing the control that many big-city executives have over schools.

To increase voter turnout, the task force recommends that school-board elections be merged with general elections.

States should not certify any school-board election in which fewer than 20 percent of registered voters participate, it adds. In such instances, the board seats should be declared open, and the state could appoint “masters’’ to fill any vacancies until a new election occurred.

Members of the task force are: Sharon Brumbaugh, past president, Pennsylvania State School Board Association; Betty Castor, commissioner, Florida Department of Education; Ramon C. Cortines, superintendent, San Francisco Public Schools; William J. Grinker, clinical professor, graduate school of public service, New York University; Henry F. Henderson Jr., president, H.F. Henderson Industries; Matina S. Horner, executive vice president, T.I.A.A.-CREF; Harold Howe 2nd, professor of education, Harvard University.

William H. Kolberg, president and C.E.O., National Alliance of Business; Anne Lewis, education-policy writer, Education Writers Association and Phi Delta Kappan; Reese Lindquist, president, Seattle Education Association; Floretta McKenzie, president, The McKenzie Group; Howard M. O’Cull, executive director, West Virginia School Boards Association; James Oglesby, past president, National School Boards Association; Neal R. Peirce, contributing editor, The National Journal.

Lourdes Sheehan, secretary for education, U.S. Catholic Conference; Maurice E. Sullivan, superintendent, Rockford, Ill.; Mitchell Svirdoff, task-force chair and senior fellow, Community Development Research Center; Adam Urbanski, president, Rochester (N.Y.) Teachers Association; Robert F. Wagner Jr., past president, New York City Board of Education.

A version of this article appeared in the April 08, 1992 edition of Education Week as Redefine Role, Duties of School Boards To Focus on Policy, Report Advocates