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In Some States, ESSA Means More Powers for Local School Boards

The Every Student Succeeds Act hands states plenty of flexibility to define school success, figure out new ways to intervene in their worst-performing schools, and set academic priorities for schools.

But some states have decided to punt these sorts of decisions back to local school boards in the coming years.

Kentucky's legislature this year weakened the state's school takeover process and bolstered the powers of its local school boards to hire principals, select curriculum, and set a school's budget. Those powers have traditionally been left to the state's education department and its many councils that for the last 30 years have governed their schools.

North Dakota's ESSA accountability plan, which it turned in earlier this month, leaves plenty of room for local school boards to decide their high school standard assessment, evaluate teachers, and determine intervention methods for schools.  

And California will shift  powers back to school boards to pick their own academic priorities and even decide whether to ask the state for help to improve academic outcomes. In 2013, the state upended its school funding formula to give school boards more flexibility in spending habits. (That policy has faced several hurdles.) 

ESSA also requires state education departments to collect more data on school climate, teacher effectiveness, and school spending, but doesn't require states to do anything about glaring disparities or dismal outcomes between student groups and schools. That work will mostly be left up to local school boards.  

"We ... saw a really important and overdue reset in the roles of the federal, state, and local levels," said Thomas Gentzel, the executive director and CEO of the National School Boards Association. "ESSA acknowledges that local school districts and leaders play a critical role."  

Local school boards have seen a steady decline of powers over the last century, according to Michael W. Kirst, the state school board chair of California, who has written extensively about the history of education governance.  

Graft scandals in the mid-1900s led many mayors and state officials to limit school boards' powers or completely do away with them (New York City this month is debating whether to continue that state's mayoral control setup.) Similarly, as states and then the federal government provided more funding for the nation's public schools, power brokers at those levels wanted more say over the day-to-day operations of public schools.

The centralizing of education governance peaked in 2001 with the passing of the No Child Left Behind Act, which brought a top-down federal accountability movement that dictated how schools should judge success and then what districts should do when schools fail to meet those measures.  ESSA is a sign that the trend is finally reversing itself, Kirst said.   

"The canary in the coal mine might have been the opting out of tests," Kirst said in a recent interview. "This is a grassroots movement that's sort of like the tea party saying, 'This is too much federal oversight.'"  

Kirst says that local school boards have a better understanding of local conditions that can be hindrances to academic improvement and give parents and teachers more opportunities to mobilize for change. 

From his essay in 2004:

"Local policymakers serve fewer constituents than state or federal officials and are much closer to citizens psychologically, as well as geographically. (Indeed, local officials understand better than anyone else their community's zone of school policy tolerance.)" 

But as powers in some states shift back to the 90,000 school board members nationally, some experts warn that there are many flaws to the governance model. 

School boards aren't perfect, as Gene Maeroff wrote in his book "School Boards In America: A Flawed Exercise in Democracy." 

Most school board members serve on a voluntary basis (only a handful in the country get paid) and sometimes lack education expertise with occassional high-profile exceptions. There's also a very low turnout for school board races, putting minority and special education communities especially at a disadvantage and well-financed teachers' unions at a political advantage, Maeroff said in his book.

But Gentzel points out that local school boards set budgets and know the intimate details of central office staff's capacity to implement state and federal policy. It's in that vein, Gentzel said, that his organization has pushed for state departments in the coming years to beef up communication efforts with school board members.

"They're not just another stakeholder that needs to be consulted," Gentzel said. "Some state agencies get that more than others."

Because there are more than 13,000 school boards, there's very little research to determine their effectiveness. It's something my colleague Debra Viadero wrote about in 2007, and it's something Kirst raises concern about today. 

"I don't know what they're doing," Kirst said. "There are too many school boards and too few researchers."

Kirst said that as school boards receive more decisionmaking powers, they should look to broaden their conversations from debates over school construction, budgets, and superintendent contracts to ways of improving classroom learning.  

And Kirst says there are some things state and federal governments did well that they should continue to do in the coming years such as protecting minority and special education students' rights and funding research into innovative teaching and learning strategies.

"Federal and state governments should stay the course on the good things they've done..." Kirst said. "That's not by telling them what to do, or constrain them even more or shame them even more by reporting all the bad things they do. But really try and build the capacity for teachers to teach and administrators to lead." 


Video: ESSA Explained in 3 Minutes

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