Are there too many layers of governance in public education? That question has been on my mind since I watched a panel discussion earlier this week titled “Are Local School Boards Vital in 21st Century America?” at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington, D.C.
I imagined there would be proponents for the elimination of school boards. I assumed the argument would be that too many school boards micromanage and bicker, and community-based policymaking boards really aren’t needed in a global economy that requires an education system that’s more uniform nationwide in its standards and expectations.
For whatever reason that argument didn’t arise. But Checker E. Finn Jr., president of the Fordham Institute, did lightly touch upon these issues while raising the argument about layers of governanceand his thoughts resonated with me.
As he noted, decisions are made on educating children at the school site, district central office, state capital, and in Washington, D.C., and that doesn’t include decisions larger districts by area superintendents with their satellite central offices or states with regional education boardsboth of which add extra levels of bureaucracy.
“You could get up to six layers of decision making in the governance structure . . . it doesn’t make much sense,” Finn said.
Indeed, the only thing all these layers 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.”
What’s interesting is that, upon reflection, you can come up with yet more forces at work on education policymaking. Parent groups fight to keep their half-empty schools open. Municipal and county boards control school budgets in many states. Individual state lawmakers can decide to mandate specific programs that tie the hands of local officials in their spending of funds, while state boards of education have sought to impose abstinence education or water down instruction on evolution.
And then there are the courts.
No one on the panel responded to Finn’s observation. He was, after all, only stating the obvious. And no one really proposed that school boards were one layer that could be considered for the trash heap.
In the end, the panel punted, acknowledging, quite rightly I think, that the questions facing school governance are complexand that simple solutions are elusive.
But, at least, NSBA Executive Director Anne L. Bryant made the case in favor of school boards. And, although she pointed out the role school boards are playing in boosting student achievement, her most compelling argument had to do with democracythat messy, loud democracy that is part of the problem.
“School boards are really the connection to the community, to the taxpayers to the owners of our public schools,” she said.
Indeed, added fellow panelist Christopher Barclay, president of the Montgomery County, Md., school boards play a crucial role because their memberseveryday community membershave a vested interest in the children of their community.
They’re the ones who can really push a school system to focus on student achievement and can really champion the 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.”
For a panel that had few answers, such observations were at least reassuring.
Del Stover, Senior Editor