This article could have been written 50 years ago. From 1969 to 1971, my college roommate and I were interns for a member of the Boston City Council. During that time, a group of Boston rabble-rousing politicians, including Louise Day Hicks, Joe Timilty, and Albert “Dapper” O’Neil, riled up the white families in South Boston against busing Boston’s Black students into their neighborhood. Much like today’s school board radicals, they used the bused Black children and the white Southie parents as political props. Their end game—just like many of today’s school board politicians—was to gain or maintain political power. Those politicians had little or no interest in solving the problems of segregated schools in Boston. Shortly after we left those internships, former Council Member Gerald F. O’Leary was elected to the Boston School Committee, took a kickback on school bus contracts, and eventually landed in prison.
A few years later, as a member of the Dover, New Hampshire, City Council, I worked with that city’s school board, particularly during annual budget meetings. Each of those school board members, like their Boston counterparts, seemed to be at least as interested in aggrandizing their own political status as they were in improving the school system which they governed. So, as far back as the 1970s, when school boards were still widely considered a good government reform initiated in the early 20th century, in fact, the boards were really just one more city hall political battleground.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. More recently, members of the Atlanta School Board went to jail because they tampered with their students’ test results. And, in Prince George’s County, Maryland, the school board is once again in political turmoil over one member’s ethics. Last year, some members of that same board were accused of tampering with school bus contracts and doing political favors. Additionally, nationwide, angry parents and conspiring politicians are running for their local school boards promising to ban many books and claiming that sex education is grooming children to be sexual victims. While the recent school board scandals and demagogues echo the old ones, such activities are just a few of the many reasons to call for the elimination of school boards in the 21st century.
Here are a few more of those reasons. First, thanks to technology, parents are now more plugged into their school systems, principals, and teachers than they ever were through their school boards. Parents no longer need to rely on the board’s political capital with individual schools when they can learn about their children’s progress by speaking directly and daily to the system’s staff themselves. School boards actually do little issue advocacy with the system on behalf of students and parents. In one particularly egregious example, their advocacy on behalf of special needs children is almost nonexistent. Parents are often on their own advocating for special needs programs and children. Apparently, the U.S. Department of Education recognizes that school boards do not perform this constituent service, as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act funds centers nationwide where parents are taught how to advocate in school systems on behalf of their children. Since school boards rarely use their political clout to connect parents to principals and teachers, they have made their job of constituent outreach and representation mostly obsolete.
A second reason for eliminating school boards is that they tend to roll over for the expertise of the school administrators; forming a solid political wall that parents have a hard time penetrating. School boards rarely challenge school administration policies and programs. It often looks more like the school boards are managed by school administrators instead of the other way around.
Third, voters are long past showing much interest in engaging with school boards. In the 2022 primary elections where I live, in Montgomery County, Maryland, a total of 160,000 Republican and Democratic voters cast their ballots for governor, while only 60,000 voters went down to the bottom of their ballots to vote in the school board primaries. That precipitous drop in interest is pretty much the national average. School board elections have devolved into contests in which mostly just teachers and community rabble-rousers participate.
Fourth, school boards make contract negotiations between the system and the teacher unions into a hydra-headed monster. Direct contract negotiations between the school administration and the teacher unions, without the machinations caused by the additional layer of school board politicians, would eliminate one layer of government and, thereby, accelerate those contract negotiations.
It is time to end school boards for good.
Additionally, for parents who want to advocate for their children and the schools’ programs, Parent Teacher Associations offer numerous advantages over school boards. PTAs simply do a better job of giving parents political and social capital within the school system. Local PTAs usually have committees concerned with issues such as gifted and talented, special needs, and mental health programs. And those committees bring the family voices directly to school systems in meetings with the relevant administrators. Furthermore, school systems often partner with their PTAs to solve large domain problems. For example, a few years ago, I served, with other members of my local PTA, on a joint committee with the school administration to assure equity in fundraising between individual schools within the system. Without school board members on the joint committee, the PTA and the administration representatives negotiated an equitable solution with no political grandstanding.
School boards began in the early 20th century as a good government reform. The idea was to take school governance out of the hands of the partisan politicians occupying mayoral offices. Modern-day reformers no longer consider nonpartisan school boards to be a good government reform. Instead, they view today’s school boards for what they are: Needless political appendages to the body politic left over from the industrial age. In the last 20 years, education reformers largely supported reducing school board power and returning the school systems to mayoral control. The data is not yet in on whether mayoral control improves student achievement and reduces corruption. However, there is growing evidence that the new, big-city mayors—Boston’s Michele Wu, Chicago’s Lori Lightfoot, New York’s Eric Adams, and DC’s Muriel Bowser—are very much a part of the fabric of their highly diverse school populations, and they need no assistance from school board politicians to provide issue advocacy and constituent services in their city’s school systems.
in the 21st century, school boards no longer enhance public school governance. Instead, they have become just another political battlefield. They do not help to improve your children’s test scores, nor do they manage today’s public-school resegregation problems. Mayors, families, PTAs, and school systems, working together, can do a better job on those critical issues. Lackluster advocacy for parents, muddling of teacher negotiations, subservience to school administrators, and low voter interest suggest that school boards, left in place, will remain fertile soil for extremist political exploitation and little more. It is time to eliminate school boards. Let’s not wait another 50 years.
Henry M. Smith is an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education. He served as an assistant secretary of education in the Clinton Administration and as mayor of Dover, N.H.