School boards are the connection to the community, to the taxpayers, to the owners of our public schools, NSBA Executive Director Anne L. Bryant said during a panel discussion on “Are Local School Boards Vital in 21st Century America?” at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington, D.C. this week.
That connection allows school boards to ensure that a community’s values and educational priorities are part of the mission of the local schools, she said. What’s more, this connection makes board members well positioned to rally community resources that can lead to improving student achievement.
School board members recognize that their responsibilities have expanded over the decadesand that they no longer serve simply as trustees for taxpayer dollars.
“School boards are also very aware of the issues facing public education,” Bryant said. “The vast majority said that the current state of student achievement is unacceptable, so school board members are not sitting in some dreamland.”
That might be the case in many communities, said fellow panelists Gene Maeroff, founding director of the Hechinger Institute at Columbia University’s Teachers College. But he expressed concern about the quality of people serving on some school boards.
In researching his new book, “School Boards in America: A Flawed Exercise in Democracy,” he said it became clear that special interest groups, such as teachers unions, were using the traditionally low voter turnout in school board elections to seat candidates who were more concerned with private agendas than with the needs of students.
“There are tens of thousands of men and women who are fine, even exemplary, members of school boards,” he said. “But there are other school board members who have no business on such bodies. We have to regard their existence as a flaw of the [governance] system.”
Christopher Barclay, president of the Montgomery County, Md., school board, argued that school boards still are necessary. Lay community members, he said, keep school system focused on student achievement and champion the special needs of underserved and low-achieving students who otherwise might be overlooked.
In Montgomery County, he said, “we applaud ourselves for having a graduation rate that’s high. But if I look at the graduation rate for African-American males, for example, we’re not doing that great . . . and we need some people to be at the table who can ask the questions of the administration: how are we going to change that? And I strongly believe that is part of the role of the school board.”
Echoing that viewpoint was Bryant, who said local school boards often act as a buffer to the fads and quick fixes that pundits and policymakers regularly propose as a panacea to the problems in public education.
“School board members do not believe in some of the current silver bullets that are flying around out there,” she said. “They are very cautious about quick fixes, such as charter schools, increasing school choice, hiring nontraditional teachers.”
So what do they think will drive turning around poor-performing schools? Bryant asked. “Professional development, using assessment data to guide their decisions, improving the quality of school and district leadership . . . well, guess what, those are the proven, research-based techniques that, in fact, actually drive turning around low-performing schools.”
The fourth panelist, Chester Finn, president of the Fordham Institute, said his concern was less with the fate of school boards than with the condition of the nation’s multi-layered governance structure overseeing public education.
Educational decisions are made at the school site, district central office, state capital, and in Washington, D.C., and that doesn’t include larger districts with area superintendents or states with regional education boards that can add extra levels of bureaucracy, he said. “You could get up to six layers of decision making in the governance structure . . . it doesn’t make much sense.”
All that accomplishes, he says, is “to pull schools apart in response to funding and regulatory streams that emanate from different levels of government; to foster bureaucracy, confusion, and tension; and maybe most importantly, in a reform era, it pretty much gives every level a functional veto over reforms initiated at ever other level.”
Over the course of the debate, issues as varied as the effectiveness of charter schools and the impact of union political influence came under the spotlight. But one commonly cited observation was the need for more training and professional development for school board members to improve their effectiveness and limit such misguided practices as micromanaging the school administration.
“That’s why the [NSBA's] Key Work of School Boards and that training is so vital because, basically, if boards are focused on student achievement, if they are setting goals, if they’re setting up accountability systems, if they are asking for the data to drive those kinds of decisions, they don’t have time for the trivial. And that’s the argument we have. And that’s what our state associations are trying to do.”
Watch a video of the hour-and-a-half long session here: