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Is It Time to Abolish the School Board?

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Last week I wrote about my (very brief) experience as a candidate for the local school board. My candidacy, like the selection process, was pretty much over before it started, but the experience left me with a number of questions about the role school boards play in shaping, framing, and reframing education policy, and the role they play as stewards of our local schools. 

I should start by saying that what I took away from the process of applying for a position on the school board wasn't exactly worth writing home about. Although I have no doubt that there is a substantial amount of community pride invested in our school board, and in boards of education scattered all over the country, there is also much to be concerned about as well. For one thing, school board meetings are notorious snooze fests: hour after hour of talk about building operations, grousing about money, parliamentary procedure, and personnel decisions. This is all done very, very carefully, and with an eye toward political implications. At the meeting I attended last week, the president actually asked the board's lawyer at one point if it was okay for the group to take a bathroom break. Believe me, I'm no stranger to committee work: this is how we get things done in higher education too, and it isn't always pretty. But it's striking to review public minutes from meetings of the school board and see that so little of the discussion that occurs when the board meets reflects the larger conversation we're all having about the future of public education. It makes you wonder how well equipped the school board may be to address the changes that are happening right under our feet.

This is a shame. The public board of education should be one of the great bulwarks of democracy, staffed by knowledgeable members of the local community the board represents, citizens who care deeply about the future and are willing to put aside their own concerns to ensure that local children receive an education that will help them grow into responsible, happy, caring adult citizens. To be sure, most school board members describe themselves vaguely in these terms: they do it for the kids, they'll tell you—not for any personal glory—and it's hard to argue with that. What glory is there to be had on the school board?

But if you look at the way public education is delivered—and let's be up front about the fact that school boards have a lot of power to determine how it is, more than most of them probably realize—you have to wonder if this is actually true. First, think about the growing disconnect between education policy writ large (NCLB, standardized testing, curricular changes like common core) and the reaction to it in your community. Does it seem lopsided to you? Some reactions are overblown, certainly, and some are misplaced; but are your board members or school administrators pleading powerlessness in the face of an onslaught they, too, are troubled by? Or, if they agree with the direction policy is moving in, are they using their position as supposed experts on these issues to educate the public about why such policy choices are important to make?

Take a look at your local school board, and ask yourself: how well does this group represent my community, and what is it doing to ensure that kids in our community are getting the kind of education they need and deserve? The answer may depend a lot on where you live, how much money you make, and who you are. If you're affluent and white, you're more likely to have a school board that looks a lot like you. But public schools are undergoing a profound demographic transformation—one report, published by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, notes that the number of Latino students in public schools has quintupled in the last half century, while the population of white students has dropped by 30%—and staffing in schools, and on school boards, hardly reflects these changes.

Indeed, a study commissioned by the National School Boards Association found that 81% of school board members are white (compared to 65% of the general population, and about 50% of the school population), while 12% of school board members are black and only 3% are Hispanic. About 26% of the school population is Hispanic now, and the Hispanic share of the school population is expected to approach 30% by 2023. Although the NSBA is quick to note that the number of black and Hispanic board members is higher in large urban districts, where the number of Hispanic members is close to 22%, this still does not represent the school population in a proportional way.

Now, there are a couple of caveats to consider here. One is that the study I just cited was based on a voluntary survey of school board members, an interesting shortcut that no doubt yielded data quickly but only resulted in a survey return rate of less than 25%. What that means is that, for example, 81% of the 25% of all school board members who responded to the survey reported that they are white; that doesn't necessarily mean that 81% of all school board members are actually white. But there is plenty of evidence to show that this is probably a pretty accurate sample. Take the public schools in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, for instance: there, the school board looks to be comprised of seven members, all of them men—and all but one of them white. Meanwhile, about half of the school population in Tuscaloosa County is non-white. You do the math. No wonder re-segregration is being recognized as a very serious problem in Tuscaloosa.

And that speaks to the other caveat: race is not everything, and certainly does not solely determine how individuals think about what they want from our education system, or get what's given to them by it. It's entirely possible that white board members can represent the interests of African-American or Hispanic members of the community, and vice-versa. Gender matters, too (and, of course, that just means the news gets worse for kids in Tuscaloosa, where no women serve on the board at all), but so do other factors. The thing about education is that it doesn't track neatly to other political issues: voters who might otherwise consider themselves very conservative may be drawn to more inclusive school policies, while more liberal or progressive voters sometimes find themselves supporting things like standards, which can be seen as very conservative (even if some of us would argue that they are not). So even if we were to overcome patterns of institutionalized discrimination and bring more racial and gender diversity to local school boards, it may not change the underlying political patterns that shape what school boards do. 

That's a useful insight to consider when thinking about how school boards work (and don't) in our political culture. As Andrew Rotherham wrote in the preface to a study conducted by researcher Paul Hill and released by the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI) in 2003, many school boards "are at once 'public' in theory and profoundly un-public in their orientation and operations." Rotherham noted also that participation in local school board elections is generally quite low (helping explain, no doubt, the gap between who serves on the school board and the people the board represents), and that many boards are "locked into destructive habits precisely because local political pressures prevent objective decisionmaking and dispassionate analysis." It seems, increasingly, that the smaller and more local the election is, the less likely it is that the results will actually reflect the needs of the people affected by it.

PPI, the publisher of that report, is what might be described as a "neoliberal" think-tank, so Hill's conclusions aren't likely to gain much traction among ground-level activists concerned that common core, standardized testing, and data collection are all part of a nefarious and thinly disguised plot to allow corporate raiders to privatize our public education system. Most activists in that camp would respond skeptically, I think, to the idea that reforming oversight of public schools could lead to anything but privatization. But public institutions can be undemocratic, too, especially if ordinary citizens do not feel empowered to participate in the political process, or are having their right to participate severely curtailed for someone else's short-term political gain. And bureaucracies, in particular—a relic, in education, of one wing of the turn-of-the-century progressive movement's obsession with efficiency, a wing that was often anything but progressive—surely can be as remote and impenetrable as any force in everyday life.

One conclusion drawn by Hill is that government oversight of education is now excessive in one dimension (where budgeting is concerned), and "shockingly negligent" in another (when it comes to school performance). Hill's solution, which he and a co-author, Ashley Jochim, have advanced in a new book, is to draft a Democratic Constitution for Public Education, and it is awfully intriguing. Most of all it raises the question: what if we just got rid of school boards altogether? Surely we could find better, and more democratic, ways to distribute the work they do. I'm not usually one to blame institutions when things go wrong—there are people running them, after all—but I think I may have started to talk myself into this one.

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