Playing Politics With State Boards: Questions To Ask About Change

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Recent elections have helped propel education reform, and specifically the governance of education, into the forefront of state legislative agendas. Whether the debate is over clearer lines of responsibility; elected or appointed state boards of education; ways to select chief state school officers; organizational restructuring; or elimination of state boards altogether, in many state legislatures bills are being introduced to make shifts in the state governance of education.

In a recent member survey, the National Association of State Boards of Education found a surge of pending legislation, but no clear trend toward any one model of governance. (See Education Week, March 8, 1995.) While Gov. George E. Pataki of New York has proposed eliminating the state board of regents, a commission appointed by Gov. Tommy G. Thompson of Wisconsin (currently the only state without a board) has recommended creating a state board. For every state where there is a legislative proposal to change the current elected board to an appointed one, there's another state where the proposal is just the opposite. Much of the furor seems to be political rather than the result of a thoughtful analysis about what will ultimately work best for America's students and their families.

As education reform moves into high gear, some see school governance as more the problem than the solution and advocate change. It is true that representative governance is imperfect, yet the problems of public schools should not be attributed to the institution of public school governance. Preparing a diverse population for effective contributions in a highly competitive and free society is a daunting challenge. Yet the proper response to the problems of public education should not be to abolish or modify the nature of representative governance. This suggests the bath water taints the baby. Removing state boards of education in favor of control from governors' mansions or legislative committees is no solution in a society committed to democratic principles and the need for strong involvement of citizens in education decisionmaking. Certainly, education is an area where reasonable opinions vary. Yet some states want to withdraw or substantially lessen, through constitutional or legislative action, the authority wielded by state boards of education. Such proposals are regressive, not progressive. Change for its own sake is not a virtue if it uproots core principles which undergird the system of public education in America.

Still, no one would argue that every state board is equally effective. We have found, however, that those boards most effective at developing, implementing, and sustaining a vision for high-quality education in their states share the following characteristics:

  • They are advocates for all children and for public education.
  • They communicate a vision for redefining and improving public education.
  • They work in partnership with the public and include all stakeholders.
  • They promote systemic improvement by creating a structure and environment designed to insure that all students have the opportunity to achieve their full potential through a sound statewide framework for education.
  • They are accountable for results, assessing all elements affecting education, and they evaluate themselves and their mission.

Reflecting these criteria, every board is subject to continuing media and public scrutiny. Such oversight is beneficial, not detrimental. Let's remember that state constitutions and statutes regarding state boards of education reflect two deeply held American values--citizen governance of education, reflected through the media and direct public participation, and the separation of educational policymaking from partisan politics. It is also a reality that leaders in the policymaking process, such as governors, legislatures, state and local superintendents, and even local school boards, tend to have more specific concerns or political perspectives. State boards are expected to be unbiased as they focus on strategic state education needs. They must express a broad vision in making policy based on the best interests of the public and of young people.

Why do we need citizen volunteers serving on the state board of education? States must insure that parents, business, and community interests are adequately represented, because these groups have a vital stake in the success of the education system. States must include leaders from diverse racial and ethnic populations within the state to assure representation. And all states must select individuals, whether by election or appointment, willing to devote their time and talents to the public interest, often without compensation or recognition.

Why should state boards avoid partisan politics? An effective board should play a nonpartisan, policymaking role. It marshals fiscal and policy support from the legislature and governor, as well as support from the public, educators, and the business community. It needs to be a nonpartisan policymaker that listens, understands, and translates the concerns of a variety of partisan stakeholders into successful education policies. Yet a state board is not entirely apolitical, for such a stance would leave it without any influence.

State boards must seek excellence to assure the best in education. Our society's democratic values and economic viability depend on their success in this quest. State school boards are the trustees of the educational welfare of all children. So in their zeal to rearrange the structure of education governance, politicians must be asked: Who is better suited to guide education than lay leaders dedicated to the interest of children and youths?

Legislatures should consider the following before changing governance in their states:

(1.) Who will be strong advocates for high-quality education for all students? The state board serves as the guardian of education for the children and youths of its state. The boards must work to remove any barriers to individual students' opportunity, such as the size or location of their school district; their race, ethnicity, gender, language, or social status; and any handicap or disability.

(2.) Who will define the vision for education in your state? The state board must set goals and expectations for the education system. Certainly, the Goals 2000: Educate America Act has set forth a challenge to the nation, but it will be up to each state how best to meet, exceed, or disregard these goals, and this is the subject of debate in many states. Yet all states should bring together diverse viewpoints and build a consensus around a clear vision for education. Each state's vision should set high standards for all students within the state; the local community should determine how those standards are achieved. It is this vision that forms the framework for all board policies.

State boards reach out and involve everyone with a stake in education. Governors, legislatures, local officials, taxpayers and voters, business and industry, parents, students, and the education community must be partners in our public education system.

(3.) Who will be accountable for public education? State board members work in a rapidly changing environment in which urban and suburban school systems are being challenged to accomplish much in a short period of time. The boards, unlike any other public body, are the anchor for state leadership in education by setting goals, presenting rules and regulations, seeking legislation to meet these goals, providing guidance to staff members, and holding people accountable for results.

To manage a public program today means to produce results. One common criticism of education is that we expect too little of our students in terms of achievement. The public's rising expectations demand that students leave school with the skills they must have to be successful--to meet the demands of the workplace and of society in a new century. State boards are attuned to rising public expectations and can hold school systems accountable. U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley said recently: "The American people's message has been consistent over the years. They are willing to spend on education, but they demand results. They want safe schools, disciplined classrooms, challenging academic standards, and a commitment to a high-quality education for every student."

Sustaining the unique role of state boards of education is the best way to meet these public concerns. They can make changes that the public wants, deliberately and effectively.

The ever-changing composition of the boards allows opinions of the public to be considered. This planned turnover also keeps governance of the public schools under public control and dedicated to the public interest.

The main challenge in developing a sound state education-governance structure is providing adequate checks and balances for control of the state's education agenda, while maintaining a clear line of authority. The system must be protected from dominant control by executive or legislative bodies, or the state will not have lay governance of education or education decisions separated from partisan political goals. States need the stability of a state board in the face of the tremendous changes and challenges our society is experiencing. State boards of education must be kept at the forefront of well-reasoned reform.

Vol. 14, Issue 25, Pages 29-30

Published in Print: March 15, 1995, as Playing Politics With State Boards: Questions To Ask About Change
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