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Essential or Obsolete? Panel Debates Value, Role of School Boards

At an otherwise staid research conference held at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government this month, lively debate on whether school boards should be abolished and how much influence teachers' unions wield proved anything but genteel.

The discussions were part of a two-day gathering here to examine the politics of school boards. Scholars presented papers on a range of topics, including the effects of more mayoral control over school boards and how special-interest groups influence boards.

The event, held Oct. 15-17, was sponsored by the education policy and governance program of the Taubman Center for State and Local Governance at the Kennedy School.

In an opening-night debate, Chester E. Finn Jr., the quotable conservative gadfly and president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in Washington, described school boards as "major bulwarks of the status quo" that have increasingly become an anachronism.

Chester E. Finn Jr.

"It is worse than a dinosaur," Mr. Finn said. "It's more like an education sinkhole."

He compared school boards to "dysfunctional families" and said board elections, notable for their low voter turnouts, are disproportionately influenced by teachers' unions. While he acknowledged there might be "pastoral towns and leafy suburbs somewhere where the Platonic ideal of the elected local school board flourishes," he said he couldn't name any. School boards become "instantly obsolete," he argued, if you don't believe in a centralized system of education.

Lisa Graham Keegan, a former state schools superintendent in Arizona and the chief executive officer of the Washington- based Education Leaders Council, followed up on her debating partner's line of argument.

"Bad systems beat good people every time," Ms. Keegan said. "The system we have right now is failing at least 40 percent of kids."

Ms. Keegan contended that more school choice in the form of vouchers and charter schools would provide "immediate accountability" that would make large, centralized governing boards unnecessary.

Anne L. Bryant

But Anne L. Bryant, the executive director of the Alexandria, Va.-based National School Boards Association, defended the nation's 15,000 school boards as essential democratic bodies.

"If the state legislature is acting stupid, do we say abolish them?" Ms. Bryant asked. "School boards are not the problem. Bad boards are the problem."

She argued that it was a false dichotomy to say school boards aren't necessary in a less top-down governance structure. "We do have a decentralized system now, and we do have boards," she said. "We need local community governors of schools."

Adam Urbanski, the president of the Rochester (N.Y.) Teachers Association and the director of the Teacher Union Reform Network, said it's a myth that unions dominate school board elections. With a nod toward Mr. Finn, he said: "When think tanks affect opinions of people and help elect their own school board members, nobody would say that think tanks control school boards."

Mr. Urbanski said he knew all about the dangers of centralized control, having fled Communist Poland as a child. School boards are "dynamic, democratic institutions," he said, that "go a long way toward making public schools public."

In a session titled "Organized Interest and School Board Politics," Terry M. Moe, a professor of political science at Stanford University, presented a paper that examined the influence teachers' unions have on school board elections. Unions' power varies depending on their size, the state they work in, and the particular dynamics of individual races, he found. But overall, he concluded, they have inherent advantages over other interest groups because they have a stable flow of money from dues and, unlike other groups, work specifically on education rather than an array of issues.

"The cards are stacked in favor of unions," Mr. Moe said. Later, in a feisty exchange with Barry Bluestone, a professor of political economy at Northeastern University in Boston who chaired the panel session, the Stanford professor said unions do little to remove poor teachers.

"I would like to see a little less ideology," Mr. Bluestone said. "You let your ideology blind you."

Mr. Moe quickly responded: "This is an exercise in social science, not in ideology. It's not about me wearing my values on my sleeves."

—John Gehring

Vol. 23, Issue 9, Page 14

Published in Print: October 29, 2003, as Reporter's Notebook
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