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School & District Management Opinion

School Boards Besieged

By William G. Howell — March 08, 2005 9 min read
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School boards today are fewer in number, and weaker in stature, than ever before.

After 32 years of teaching in the same public schools that she attended as a child, this winter my mother-in-law decided to run for the local school board.

During her career in Woodward, Okla., a small agricultural town just east of the Panhandle, Linda taught 7th and 8th grade English, sponsored the student council, presented instructional workshops for teachers, wrote district grants, and coached the middle and high school academic-bowl teams.

She taught generations of students, and then attended their graduations, weddings, and baby showers. As the director of the community GED program, she worked year-round with Mexican immigrants, unwed mothers, and even some former students who had dropped out of high school. When she retired in 2003, the high school senior class asked her to be their graduation speaker.

As part of her campaign, friends and former colleagues raised money for a radio spot and an advertisement in the local paper. Linda spoke at the local teachers’ union and one of the town’s main civic organizations. She and her friends personally contacted people who had voted in the last school bond election.

The effort paid off. And in a big way. In last month’s election, Linda upset a two-term incumbent by winning over 90 percent of the votes cast. If the word “mandate” means anything at all, Linda can claim to have it.

Still, I worry that the groundswell of enthusiasm that ushered Linda into office will fail to translate into real influence over the education issues that her community faces: the closing of three elementary schools because of declining enrollment, the deterioration of the middle school’s facilities, the inflated sports budget, and the loss of young teachers to Oklahoma City and Texas.

Some challenges, of course, will come from sitting board members who disagree with Linda’s views on these matters. But the real hazards lie elsewhere—specifically, with politicians in every level and branch of government who, over the past half-century, have worked to displace the visions and prerogatives of school board members everywhere.

School boards today are fewer in number, and weaker in stature, than ever before. In 1936, the first year for which reliable school district counts are available, the nation had 118,892 districts with an average of 218 students; by 1997, just 15,178 districts attended to an average of fully 3,005 students each. As the number of school boards rapidly declined, so did the number of members serving on them. In 1893, the 28 American cities with populations of greater than 100,000 residents maintained school boards with 21.5 members, on average. Two decades later, that average dropped to roughly seven members, and has not recovered since.

In 1920, public elementary and secondary schools relied on local governments for 83 percent of their funds, state governments for 17 percent, and the federal government for less than 1 percent. By 2000, local revenues constituted just 43 percent of total expenditures, while the state and federal governments kicked in for 50 percent and 7 percent respectively. Accompanying these funds are increasing numbers of regulations affecting what schools teach, how their contracts are written, who is hired, and when they can be fired.

Most everything that school boards do is now subject to regulations handed down from city councils, state boards of education and legislatures, the federal government, and federal courts.

The courts, especially since Brown v. Board of Education, have had a profound impact on public education. After leading the fight to desegregate public schools in the 1950s and 1960s, courts now mandate all sorts of education policies. They set rules on which student organizations can assemble on public school grounds, what kinds of religious references valedictorians can make at graduation, what allowances and accommodations must be made for students with disabilities. State courts have had a definite impact on school finance, setting fixed standards on the levels and types of permissible funding inequalities between and within districts. And now, courts are adjudicating cases over whether local school boards can place stickers claiming that “evolution is a theory, not a fact” in science textbooks.

Whereas 19th-century school board members governed virtually all aspects of public education, today boards must compete with political actors scattered throughout the local, state, and federal governments. Most everything that school boards do is now subject to regulations handed down from city councils, state boards of education and legislatures, the federal government, and federal courts. In 1980, the science educator and Stanford University professor J. Myron Atkin lamented: “Increasingly local school administrators and teachers are losing control over the curriculum as a result of government action. … In this process, the local administrator [and elected official] becomes less of an educational leader and more of a monitor of legislative intent.” Since then, from Atkin’s perspective, matters have only worsened.

In the past decade, three trends in public education have contributed to the decline of school board powers. First, in such cities as Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, and New York, mayors and states have eliminated (or seriously crippled) the powers of independently elected school board members and have assumed primary responsibility for the functioning of public schools within their jurisdictions. Currently, there are over 1 million students in districts across the country that are run by mayors.

As takeovers effectively shift political power away from school boards to other political actors, choice-based reforms threaten to limit government power more generally. Vouchers, intra- and inter-district public school choice, and magnet and charter schools all intend to empower parents, introducing choice and competition to an expanding education marketplace. Doing so, they transform a top-down accountability system, whereby teachers and principals answer to school boards and the superintendents they appoint, to a bottom-up accountability system, whereby schools attempt to attract and retain students whose parents enjoy a wide range of educational options.

And then there is the recent push for standards and accountability, epitomized by the federal No Child Left Behind Act. While states choose the tests and set the standards, local school boards must reorganize curricula to advance fixed objectives that were identified by state and federal bureaucrats. To a greater and greater extent, the purposes of education are defined from on high, while school boards, and the schools under their care, scramble to demonstrate compliance from below.

Should we applaud these trends? After all, what about localism is really worth defending? Aren’t the excesses of localism (cronyism, corruption, provincialism, and waste) ample justification for legislative and judicial intervention?

To a greater and greater extent, the purposes of education are defined from on high, while school boards, and the schools under their care, scramble to demonstrate compliance from below.

Given the state of local education politics, it is difficult to rally to the defense of school boards. Recent research suggests that boards do a better job of enabling vested stakeholders to extract revenues from, and exert their will over, the public school system, rather than presenting an open forum for diverse interests to assemble and jointly deliberate over the civic and professional education of children. And given such an unfortunate state of affairs, trends that marginalize boards may, in the end, redound to the benefit of children.

Surveying both winners and losers in California school board elections, Terry Moe finds that teachers’ unions are far and away the most important player influencing who is elected and which policies they support. In fact, by Moe’s account, the combined influence of parents, religious bodies, business groups, and other community organizations paled in comparison.

Drawing from a national survey of sitting school board members, Frederick M. Hess and David L. Leal find that in most districts, school board politics do not reveal the considerable drama that characterizes congressional or presidential elections. Instead, most school board elections are low-spending, noncompetitive affairs, wherein candidates rely principally upon friends and family members for campaign contributions.

Analyzing other surveys, David Campbell finds that parents from religiously homogeneous districts attend more local school board meetings than parents from heterogeneous districts. Rather than diversity drawing parents into local education politics, it appears to depress civic engagement. Social capital, Campbell observes, flourishes among like-minded residents sharing common religious traditions, casting doubts on those who defend school boards on the grounds that they provide forums for diverse interests to deliberate collectively.

Luis Fraga, Nick Rodriguez, and Bari Erlichson recently examined the San Francisco school board’s handling of a desegregation consent decree during the 1980s and 1990s. Using the power to hire and fire the superintendent, they discovered, the San Francisco board managed to carefully calibrate progress (or lack thereof) toward stated desegregation objectives. Indeed, these scholars argue, part of the reason racial parity has not been achieved in San Francisco schools is the obstructionist behavior of the city’s school board.

But if these studies do not exactly encourage policymakers to run out and support their school boards, others reveal the downsides to localism’s decline. In a study of South Carolina school board elections, Chris Berry and I found that when turnout was high, voters held incumbent board members accountable for the test-score performances of local schools. In the 2000 presidential election, at least, test-score gains positively contributed to the probability that incumbent board members sought reelection, depressed the chances that they faced a competitor, and increased their final vote shares. To the extent that these results carry over to other contexts, it would appear that school board elections can serve functions beyond merely anointing the preferred candidates of teachers’ unions and other organized interests.

Rather than diversity drawing parents into local education politics, it appears to depress civic engagement.

Examining the experiences of Latinos in Texas, Kenneth Meier and Erik Juenke see valuable gains in reforming the structure of school board elections. Where they are a minority of the population, Latinos secure more seats in ward elections than in at-large elections; higher levels of Latino representation on school boards, in turn, lead to higher levels of representation among teachers and administrators; and where Latino teachers work, Latino students score higher on tests and attend advanced classes more often.

Simple changes to the design of school board elections would appear to yield profound downstream consequences, suggesting that state and federal policymakers should pay as much attention to school board electoral reforms as to the specific education initiatives that are designed to improve minority test scores.

To be sure, not all aspects of local education politics are cause for celebration. And some are downright poisonous. But in the push to advance the now-fashionable goals of standardization and accountability, we would do well to reflect upon the appropriate role of the governing institution that, at least historically, has assumed primary responsibility for the educational lives of children.

I, for one, hope that the rising tide of rules and regulations handed down from state legislatures, courthouses, and Washington does not wash out the commitment and expertise of local educators like my mother-in-law. For if not the local school board, then which political institution will hear, and heed, their voices?

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A version of this article appeared in the March 09, 2005 edition of Education Week as School Boards Besieged

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