Up for Discussion
Although many policymakers and practitioners agree that school boards need to be fixed, they are far from reaching a consensus on the solution.
Instead, the diversity of their proposals reflects their widely different diagnoses of the patient.
At one end of the spectrum are those who have assessed the problem to be no worse than a common cold; on the assumption that the current governance system is basically sound, they are calling for only modest improvements.
At the other end of the continuum are those who have determined the ailment to be life-threatening; their most radical prescriptions call for abolishing school boards and letting individual schools govern themselves.
No matter the diagnosis, the upshot is that the once-sacred taboo against questioning the lay governance of education is gone forever.
"I think we're overdue for a really good discussion about the governance of the system,'' Ted Kolderie, a senior associate at the Center for Policy Research in Minneapolis, says.
Over the past decade, most of the changes in the way school boards go about their business have been brought about through a process of accretion and default, with little attention paid to the overall system of educational governance.
Now that is changing. Just this month, a task force on school governance, convened by the Twentieth Century Fund and the Danforth Foundation, released a report that calls for major changes in the way school boards function.
In the next 10 months, reports on the governance, organization, and management of schools are expected from both the Institute for Educational Leadership and the Committee for Economic Development.
Meanwhile, several states have shown a growing willingness to address the issue of educational governance head-on. The Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990, for example, redefined the jobs of every player in the system: from the local school-board member to the state commissioner of education.
"I don't think anybody has a formula that says, 'This is what education governance ought to be,''' argues Neil R. Peirce, a journalist and a member of the Twentieth Century Fund's task force.
But "there is a multitude of possibilities,'' he adds, "and now is the time--with school boards legitimately in question and with a number in total turmoil, as in large cities--to try lots of experiments to see what will work best.''
As the entities stuck squarely in the middle of the education-governance structure, school boards do not have the option of standing still, says Phillip C. Schlechty, the president of the Center for Leadership in School Reform in Louisville, Ky.
"The fate of public education,'' he maintains, "depends on how school boards respond to this whole restructuring agenda. Whether they will become affirmative, and see themselves in a position to lead the redefinition of their roles, or whether they will resist.''
The real question, he asserts, is not whether boards will survive, but "whether the schools over which they exercise influence are going to be a source of national pride or a national disgrace.''
The National School Boards Association is the strongest proponent of taking only modest steps to strengthen the existing system.
"We do have some school boards that 'micro-manage,''' acknowledges Thomas A. Shannon, the organization's executive director. "We do have some school boards that don't do the right thing. We even have some school-board members that go to jail. But that's true for many of our institutions.''
"The real thing,'' he argues, "is to get people behind the effort that the school board is trying to make.''
The N.S.B.A. favors get-out-the-vote and voter-education campaigns to increase turnout for school-board elections, community involvement to recruit the "best possible candidates,'' and training offered by the N.S.B.A. and its state-level affiliates to improve the effectiveness of board members.
Other proposals to bolster the existing system would:
- Establish stronger criteria for who can serve on school boards.
- Require training for board members.
- Limit the number of times boards can meet.
- Merge school-board and general elections to increase voter turnout.
The report by the Twentieth Century Fund also advocates that states decertify any school-board election that attracts fewer than 20 percent of registered voters. In such cases, the board seats should be declared open, the report states, and the state could appoint special "masters'' to fill any vacancies until a new election is held.
- Return to at-large elections for the majority of board candidates, rather than selecting members by geographic precinct.
- Select and support "masters''--outside facilitators with expertise and experience in education policy--to assist local school boards in solving problems.
Nine states have also passed laws that allow the state to take over a failing school district and remove its board of education.
Although takeovers are an extreme form of intervention, they do not change the basic roles and responsibilities for the majority of school boards.
Others favor keeping school boards, but redefining what they do. A favored vehicle for bringing about such change is through state legislation.
Simply exhorting board members to focus more on policy and less on minutiae will not work, they maintain.
In Massachusetts, Gov. William F. Weld has introduced a bill that would severely limit the ability of boards to involve themselves in administrative matters.
It would eliminate the involvement of school boards in all hiring decisions, except the superintendent; remove collective-bargaining approval from the board; limit the number of board meetings to eight a year; and prohibit school boards from conducting business through subcommittees.
It would also expand the rigor and frequency with which school boards evaluate their superintendents.
In another attempt to redefine the role and responsibilities of school boards, the report by the Twentieth Century Fund advocates "reconstituting'' school boards as "education policy boards.''
Such boards would have the authority to set broad policy guidelines, establish oversight procedures, define standards of accountability, and ensure adequate planning for future needs. But, as is true in Governor Weld's proposal, they would not engage in the details of running a school district.
Policy boards would set spending priorities, for instance, but not vote on small contracts or on every competitive bid. They would establish goals for labor agreements and approve the final contracts, but not participate in the negotiations. And they would hire a superintendent and set personnel policies, but not interview or approve prospective principals.
Although school boards could make some of the changes themselves, the report suggests, the responsibility for creating such entities rests largely with state government.
"School boards exist because state governments choose to create them,'' it notes. It advocates that states repeal all current laws and regulations specifying the duties, functions, selection, and role of school boards.
In their place, states should give boards broad policymaking authority, the report advocates. And they should set clear performance criteria to hold them accountable for student progress and effective management.
'A Deal Breaker'
To some extent, Tennessee lawmakers have already begun to blaze such a trail.
An education-reform law passed by the legislature last month attempts to clarify the roles and responsibilities of those involved in school governance, and to demarcate the line between policymaking and administration.
Beginning in September 1996, elected school boards will be responsible for setting broad policy goals, hiring a superintendent, and employing tenured teachers, based on the superintendent's recommendation.
But the authority to hire all nontenured faculty members, assign employees, administer transportation and other school services, and contract with school principals, based on new performance agreements, will reside solely with the superintendent.
Business leaders, who pushed hard for the law's passage, view the overhaul as the foundation for implementing other education reforms in Tennessee.
"This was a deal breaker,'' says Dave Goetz, the executive director of the Tennessee Business Roundtable. "We said that if this bill does anything, it has to do this. You can't make the other programs work if you still have to cut through all of the political entanglements that have held back Tennessee schools all this time.''
John Carver, an expert on private and nonprofit boards, maintains that school-board members need a "transformation''--not just a change--in their job description.
"Requirements that school boards take action ... on a myriad of personnel and other administrative decisions trivialize what strategic leadership is about,'' Mr. Carver says. "These expectations force a board to get its fingers in the system rather than its arms around it.''
He advocates that boards spend their time and energy defining the skills, understandings, and attitudes expected of students. To accomplish that task, he would require that boards spend far more time engaging the public in a debate about what it expects in return for its money.
Then, Mr. Carver says, school boards should delegate as much authority as possible to the superintendent and members of his or her staff.
Beyond defining a relatively small number of unacceptable behaviors, a board's main responsibility would be to determine whether its goals were being met, by demanding data from the superintendent and outside evaluators.
As long as a superintendent achieved the desired results within the policies laid out by the board, his or her job would be secure. Mr. Carver's recommendations were submitted to the West Virginia legislature, as part of a re-examination of public-school governance in that state.
Howard M. O'Cull, the executive director of the West Virginia School Boards Association and a member of the Twentieth Century Fund's task force, says: "If school boards are going to survive in any viable form into the 21st century, they are going to have to be reconstituted and made more relevant. And that can be accomplished by getting them out of micro-management and into broad policy areas.''
But while such distinctions sound good in theory, Mr. Shannon warns, they are difficult in practice.
"We don't see how, as a practical matter, you can put this into statute,'' he says. "If you've got 10 people in a room, you've got 12 opinions on what is policy and what is administration.''
The widespread movement toward school-based management, which delegates authority for many policy and administrative decisions to individual schools, is also forcing school boards to redefine their role.
"Implementing true school-based management has to mean a very different relationship between the school and the school board,'' says Sandra Kessler Hamburg, the director of education studies at the Committee for Economic Development.
"School boards cannot continue to do the same kind of direct management of financial resources and curriculum and other aspects of the school program that they have in the past,'' she argues, "if, at the same time, we expect greater decisionmaking to be based at the school itself.''
Critics charge that boards of education have impeded site-based management by refusing to relinquish authority for such key decisions as spending, hiring, and firing.
"Most school-site management isn't that at all,'' says Theodore R. Sizer, a professor of education at Brown University. "It's the delegation downward of very limited authority, saying we will devolve to you this authority as long as you carry it out in the following way. So the whole thing hasn't gone very far.''
To address such concerns, Governor Weld's proposal in Massachusetts would give primary and final authority to school principals to allocate their budgets and hire and fire teachers, with substantial input from school-site councils.
The Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990 also invests significant authority in school-based decisionmaking groups, including the ability to select a principal from among a slate of candidates and to adopt the school's budget.
At least one state has taken site-based management a step further, by delegating substantial authority to parent-dominated governance councils at individual schools.
The Chicago Education Reform Act, passed by the Illinois legislature in 1988, created councils of parents, teachers, and citizens at each school and gave them the authority to hire principals and spend discretionary money. In so doing, it sought to place certain core decisions out of reach of the central board.
A recent study by the Chicago Panel on Public School Policy and Finance suggests, however, that the changes may not have gone far enough. It reported that the central school board still micro-managed the system, provided little clear direction, and second-guessed top administrators.
"Chicago has figured out what they don't want the school board to do,'' says Michael W. Kirst, a professor of education at Stanford University, "but not what they do want the school board to do.''
Some advocates of change in school governance view the temptation of school boards to interfere in the day-to-day management of schools as so great that they would make it structurally impossible.
One way to do this, such proponents maintain, is to establish schools as independent entities that operate under a contract, or "charter,'' with a local board of education.
Although charter schools must be open to all students, they are free from most existing rules and regulations. For example, they can fire and hire whom they please and develop their own curriculum.
In such cases, the board still sets overall policy. For instance, a charter might spell out what results a school needs to achieve to maintain its contract. But the school is no longer under the board's jurisdiction for administrative purposes.
"If you want to really create a policy board,'' Mr. Kolderie of the Center for Policy Research says, "you just don't lecture at the board. You create an institutional arrangement in which all they can reach is the policy issues. And you do that by giving the school a legal existence, which is what the typical site-based-management discussion doesn't do.''
Minnesota legislators approved a charter-schools bill last year. Lawmakers in at least six states and a handful of school districts are also exploring or plan to introduce such measures.
Another alternative that has the effect of removing school boards from the realm of administration is the contracting out of the entire operation of a school system.
In 1989, for example, the school board in Chelsea, Mass., turned over the operation of its schools, including all district policymaking and oversight functions, to Boston University, a private institution.
Under the agreement, the school committee cannot veto any decision, although it can require the university to reconsider a motion by a two-thirds vote and sever the relationship by a simple majority.
But a study last year by Pelavin Associates suggests that the agreement may have gone too far, thrusting the board into a reactive--rather than a "proactive''--role.
Other contractual relationships preserve a clearer policymaking role for the board of education.
Last month, the Duluth, Minn., school board entered into an unprecedented agreement with a for-profit education-management firm to provide the district with an interim superintendent of schools.
Officials of the firm, Educational Alternatives Inc., say they are negotiating with more than 15 school boards around the country to manage all or part of their operations, including those in Green Brook, N.J., and Winona, Minn.
Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, suggests that school boards contract with individuals or management firms to operate their districts for at least a five-year period. Such contracts would be awarded based on education and business plans that could be competitively bid.
Because all bidders are likely to exaggerate what they can produce, he argues, a substantial part of the money they receive--perhaps up to 50 percent--should be contingent on fulfilling promised objectives.
By holding public hearings on such plans, Mr. Shanker contends, school boards could promote greater community involvement in setting education priorities than they do now.
The arrangement would also have a significant advantage over the current structure, he says, because a management firm could bring in an entire team of administrative leaders, not just a superintendent.
Governor Weld's proposal, for example, would require school boards to solicit competitive bids for a superintendent and a management team. Superintendents would also be allowed to bid on providing management and supervisory responsibilities to other school districts.
A 'Portfolio' of Schools
One of the central tenets behind charter and contract arrangements is the goal of having boards govern their districts without smothering the creativity of individual schools and employees.
"Boards need to see their job as maintaining a portfolio of schools, which is not the same as regulating all schools to be alike,'' argues Paul Hill, a senior social scientist with the RAND Corporation.
He proposes that school boards sign a contract or charter with several organizations that agree to operate or provide assistance to a group of schools.
Under such arrangements, proponents argue, the charter agency would then be accountable for the performance of those schools. If it failed, they say, the board could contract with another firm or, eventually, replace a school's entire staff.
Networks of reform-oriented educators, such as the Coalition of Essential Schools, could compete for such charters.
But others caution that, as long as school boards have an exclusive monopoly on providing public education, they will lack the incentive to foster real creativity and change.
These reformers have suggested an array of proposals that would force school boards to compete with other institutions to provide publicly funded education to students in their districts.
In Minnesota, for example, the postsecondary-options plan allows high-school students to attend local colleges, universities, and vocational schools at public expense. The higher-education institutions are reimbursed using funds that normally would have flowed to the school district.
Mr. Schlechty of the Center for Leadership in School Reform has proposed a version of contracting out that would also force school boards and their administrations to engage in competition.
Under his proposal, each state would set up a public-education commission that would guarantee voters in every town, city, or county the right to choose an education provider for their community.
The state would charter potential providers--whom Mr. Schlechty recommends limiting to nonprofit organizations. The state could require that they guarantee such attributes as equal access, transportation, racial balance, performance data, and collective-bargaining rights in order to qualify.
The choice of provider would be made through local elections, held once every 10 years. Voters could learn about what each provider would offer through public hearings and "audit'' reports, in which the operation of each provider would be made a matter of public record. Providers would operate under a contract with the state.
Assuming it were willing to meet the provisions to gain a charter, a local board of education and its administration could compete to be the service provider.
"Bureaucracies,'' Mr. Schlechty notes, "are very resistant to change. One of the most powerful incentives to change, as the American automobile industry has demonstrated, is an outside threat.''
According to Mr. Kolderie of the Center for Policy Research, charter schools could also provide school boards with a source of external competition, if entities other than local boards of education could grant a charter. Potential competitors might include such public bodies as universities, city councils, and state boards of education.
Many existing choice proposals also threaten the sovereignty of school boards, by allowing students to attend schools outside the district in which they live and having the money follow the student.
Attempts to privatize education through such vehicles as vouchers also present a clear threat to public school boards, governance experts note.
They point to the plan by Chris Whittle, a Tennessee businessman, to launch a chain of innovative for-profit private schools as one of the most dramatic privatization proposals.
Merge With Local Government
Yet another group of theorists would eliminate school boards outright, by merging them with general local government.
Advocates of this view argue that placing education directly under the control of elected mayors and city councils would provide greater public accountability.
Many European countries, for instance, set finance, curriculum, and personnel policies related to education at the national level, but leave the local administration of schools to general units of government, such as cities and other municipalities.
Last year, Mayor Raymond Flynn of Boston proposed abolishing the Boston School Committee and making the school department a branch of city government. As the law finally passed in the state legislature, it changed the school committee from an elected body to one appointed by the mayor from a list of possible members provided by a nominating committee, but it retained its authority as an independent agency.
The report of the Twentieth Century Fund advocates that, in big cities, members of education-policy boards be appointed--rather than elected--with the majority of appointments made by the mayor, based on recommendations from a screening panel.
"This would encourage greater collaboration between schools and city government,'' it argues, "meeting our concern that children receive the necessary full range of social services.''
Such collaboration would also acknowledge an important fiscal reality, according to the report: that most large urban school systems are dependent on local government for support.
"Having a direct relationship with City Hall might create a better climate for budget negotiations and financial support for education,'' the Twentieth Century Fund contends.
But many observers are not anxious to cede more control over big-city school systems to mayors whose own reputations are often far from blemish-free. And they worry that, if education were merged with other government functions, it would become just another item on a city council's agenda--along with fixing the potholes or collecting the garbage.
Yet others advocate that school boards be merged with broader policy boards.
Such an approach, its proponents say, would prevent the growing social needs of children from slipping through the cracks of various service providers.
Luvern L. Cunningham, a professor emeritus of educational administration at Ohio State University, has suggested that, over the next generation, communities need to phase out local school districts, school boards, and superintendents and replace them with a reconstituted local government.
The new entity would be responsible for governing all areas related to the health and well-being of the community, including its mental health, physical health, public safety, early-childhood education, adult education, libraries, museums, child day care, adult day care, K-12 schooling, job retraining, employment counseling and placement, literacy, and community development.
New jurisdictions, set up to deliver such services, would be governed by elected commissions, just as school districts are now governed by boards.
According to Mr. Cunningham, school districts are nearing the breaking point in their ability to provide for the noneducational needs of children.
"As the gravity surrounding issues of governance becomes more severe,'' he says, "more and more people will be willing to take a few steps back and say, 'Let's think about some of these ideas.'''
The Twentieth Century Fund takes a less radical approach. It recommends that states create youth coordinating boards that would have the authority to integrate children's policies across the various units of government.
Education-policy boards could link their policies to broader children's issues under the supervision of the coordinating bodies.
The Minneapolis Youth Coordinating Board, for example, is sponsored by five government entities: the City of Minneapolis, the Minneapolis Public Schools, Hennepin County, the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board, and the Minneapolis Public Library Board. Each agency contributes money to support the board's functioning.
Other states have mandated varying degrees of collaboration between school boards and the other entities that serve children. And the N.S.B.A. has pursued such cooperation at the national level.
In big cities, the Twentieth Century Fund recommends focusing accountability for the integration of children's services in the mayor's office.
Finally, some critics have suggested that school districts--and, by extension, their boards of education--be eliminated and that states work directly with individual schools.
These critics claim that school boards have become an outdated and unnecessary form of "middle management.''
"Not only are boards a problem, but they are becoming in some ways superfluous as the states become more and more specific about what they want all schools to accomplish,'' says John E. Chubb, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
"We might be better off,'' he argues, "if we had a system where the state established the basic guidelines and the schools themselves decided how to implement them without the middleman of the board of education.''
Such a proposal is now being tried in Britain, where schools can "opt out'' of their local education authorities and receive their funding directly from the national government.
This month, the Colorado House approved a bill that would also allow individual public schools, with faculty and parental approval, to withdraw from their school districts to try new educational approaches.
Under the bill, seceding schools would affiliate with a new statewide "independent school district'' under the supervision of the state board of education. Although every major education group in the state strongly opposes the bill, the measure passed the House on a 38-to-23 vote.
A Pure Choice Proposal
In their book Politics, Markets and America's Schools, Mr. Chubb and Terry M. Moe, a professor of political science at Stanford University, propose a slightly different option that would also allow individual schools to receive money directly from the state and operate free of local school districts.
Under their choice plan, any group or organization could become chartered as a public school by the state, if it met minimum state criteria. Such schools would then become eligible to compete for students and receive public funds.
Each charter school would be able to govern itself as it wanted. Although school boards would be free to run their present schools, they would have to vie with these new competitors for students. And they would have authority only over their own schools and not over any of the others chartered by the state.
The unwritten expectation is that, faced with such competition, most school boards and their district administrations would either change drastically or disappear.
"When it comes to performance,'' the authors assert, "schools are held accountable from below, by parents and students who directly experience their services and are free to choose.''
The "direct democratic control of schools,'' Mr. Chubb and Mr. Moe continue, "the very capacity for control, not simply its exercise,'' would be eliminated under their plan.
As in the Chicago reform law, one of the primary impetuses behind the Chubb-Moe proposal is the desire to make educational governance more responsive to parents.
Who Needs Districts?
To some degree, states are already attempting to make an end-run around school boards and work directly with individual schools.
A few states have designed programs that provide grants and incentives directly to schools, rather than school districts. In Kentucky, the unit of accountability--and the recipient of most rewards and sanctions--is the school, not the school system. Similarly, the Bush Administration's America 2000 initiative focuses on the creation and funding of 535 new schools.
Underlying much of the governance debate is the question of whether school districts themselves are needed. Many people have suggested, for example, that large urban school systems have become too large to be manageable and should be broken up into smaller entities.
As an alternative, Mr. Kolderie of the Center for Policy Research suggests that school boards contract with two to four groups--or even spin off their own administration into three or four free-standing units--and allow them to compete to offer educational services districtwide.
"I think scale is very important,'' Mr. Sizer of Brown University says, "and that the aggrieved or concerned parent should be able to look a school-board member in the eye. That's the kind of touchstone.''
The 'Full Sweep' of Schooling
But, Mr. Sizer cautions, a system should not be so small that it is not able to offer coherent planning across the entire age span of a child's education.
"I think there is a lot of argument for having some group of people, in a relatively small-scale situation, responsible for the full sweep of a kid's education and not just a middle school or a high school or an elementary school,'' he says. "And I think people close-in can do that better than well-intentioned folks in the state capital figuring out how to mandate.''
Experts are also concerned that, if the municipal responsibility for funding schools were removed, as occurred in California, voters would be less willing to support tax increases for education.
"Once it no longer feels like it's your own pocketbook for your own schools, but for some vague, general thing called California schools, you're less inclined to reach into it,'' says Chester E. Finn Jr., a professor of education and public policy at Vanderbilt University and a strong proponent of eliminating school boards.
"I'm a little more sensitive than I was a year ago to the possibility that the municipal sense of ownership may have some practical implications,'' he adds, but the role of school boards themselves would have to be "radically redefined.''
'Larger Community Interest'
Others suggest that economies of scale, the need for schools to share resources and coordinate activities, and the fact that schools operate in the context of a community--and not in a vacuum--all argue for the continued existence of school districts.
In addition, the ability of schools to govern themselves is uneven, at best.
"I'm very skeptical about schools improving very well, totally on their own,'' Mr. Hill of RAND says. "Most of them are going to need some help.''
Finally, observers note, public education serves a larger community interest, not just that of parents and students.
"The majority of site-based-management governing structures are controlled by the profession, and then parents,'' says Jacqueline P. Danzberger, the director of governance programs at the Institute for Educational Leadership. "The voice of the larger community is either not there, or very much in the minority.''
"I think we have to ask ourselves, isn't there a larger community interest in what happens in our public schools?'' she says.
By relying on school-site councils exclusively, she adds, "you isolate the rest of the community from responsibility for education.''
For now, most people concede, public school boards in some form are here to stay, for both theoretical and practical reasons.
'You Need School Boards'
"You need school boards, because the people that pay for the schools want to be heard,'' says David Shaffer, a board member in Parsippany-Troy Hills, N.J. "I don't think it's any more complicated than that.''
"You need a local school board where the people can put their own flavor and their own ideas and their own priorities into their schools,'' he adds.
"School boards are part of the fabric of American culture,'' Mr. Kirst of Stanford agrees. "I think it's on the wrong path to say we ought to get rid of them, particularly if we haven't tried to strengthen them and redefine what they're doing.''
In addition, with some 97,000 members entrenched in communities across the country, school boards will hardly stand by and watch themselves be abolished.
"Boards of education will continue to exist no matter how they behave,'' Mr. Schlechty of the Center for Leadership in School Reform argues, "because they're too politically powerful to be gotten rid of.''
State Role Key
Because states still have the legal responsibility for public education in the United States, most observers say reforms will have to start at the top.
Unless states begin to review the accumulated effect of all the mandates that they have approved over the past two decades, they note, the power of school boards will continue to diminish.
Mr. Schlechty suggests that states could provide incentives, standards, and enabling legislation to encourage school boards to change.
States could, for example, accredit school boards rather than schools, and initiate recall elections for boards that fail to achieve results.
"I think they're in the best position to perceive what needs to be done,'' Mr. Schlechty says.
Many people also agree that it makes most sense to start by reforming the governance of large urban systems, where some of the most glaring problems and the greatest concentrations of children are located.
"In state legislatures, which are dominated by suburbs and small towns, why start with something that you wouldn't have any possibility of doing?'' Ms. Danzberger of the Institute for Educational Leadership says.
But observers caution that there may not be one best way to redefine local school governance. Any attempt to zero in on a solution at this point and mandate it for all communities could lead to a disaster, they say.
"I believe communities must be part of deciding what really will work for them,'' Ms. Danzberger says. "I don't think that states saying, 'Now we're going to do it a totally different way, and everybody will do it the same way,' will work.''
Assistant Editor Ann Bradley contributed to this report
Vol. 11, Issue 32, Pages 23-25, 27-28