NSBA brought its executive director and two researchers to debate the relevancy of school board governance on Monday at its Federal Relations Network (FRN) conference. For audience members, though, there was no question that school boards are not just relevant, but a much-needed democratic institution.
One big challenge is the public’s lack of understanding the role that school boards play, said Thomas J. Gentzel, NSBA’s new executive director. He emphasized that school board members hold official roles, not volunteer positions.
“We need to tell our stories about what the issues are,” he said.
Thomas Alsbury, professor of educational administration and supervision at Seattle Pacific University, has studied governance in other countries, most recently Taiwan. He said centralized control often leads to a less equitable education, fewer entrepreneurial programs, and overzealous focus on standardized test scores—a fact not lost on more than 600 members in the audience. Alsbury said some countries are looking to the U.S. for guidance in revamping their school governance structures.
“The local school board has it right—they understand what communities need,” said Alsbury, author of The Future of School Board Governance: Relevance and Revelation.
Cynthia G. Brown, vice president for education policy at the Washington-based think tank Center for American Progress, was more critical. “Are [school boards] still relevant? Maybe,” she said. “It’s up to you to decide whether you want to remain relevant.”
Brown, who has advocated for more equitable state school funding formulas, believes school boards must do more to ensure equitable funding, services, and opportunities for all students. To remain relevant, she advised attendees to focus on student achievement and closing achievement gaps by implementing a strong curriculum and strengthening the role of teachers.
“The reality is the quality of a student’s education is dictated by their zip code, where they live, and that’s not your fault,” she said. But Brown riled the crowd when she insinuated that school boards do not distribute funding equitably within their districts and that state officials should control budgets and finance.
Gentzel and Alsbury noted that giving up fiscal responsibilities would erode local control, as state officials would use the purse strings to control other programs.
Alsbury noted that other countries funnel most of their funding to top-performing students, who are also most likely to be represented on international assessments. “The least equitable are the countries that are getting the top scores” on TIMSS and other international assessments, Alsbury said.