School Boards: Our Indicator Species

A few months ago, chatting with my brother-in-law, a former executive at the National School Boards Association, I suggested we collaborate on a book called Saving School Boards.

There was a pause. “Do they need saving?” he asked.

Head spin.

We’ve come a long way since the Kerner Commission (1968) concluded that the nation was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal” (though many of our inner cities would beg to differ), but I do believe we have a two societies problem with regard to school boards:  Love ‘em or leave ‘em.

Jay Mathews has a a typically terrific Who Needs School Boards? squib up on his Washington Post blog; this one highlight’s a fellow scribe’s new book, School Boards in America: A Flawed Exercise in Democracy. Its author, Gene Maeroff, a former New York Times reporter, “made the sacrifice,” as Mathews says, “of getting himself elected to the school board in Edison, N.J.” (where I used to live, not far from where the light bulb was invented). “He is still there,” quips Mathews, “enduring soporific meetings and nasty e-mails, convinced that, despite its faults, the school board as an American institution will survive.”

I feel his pain. I am now in my fourth year on my school board – not counting the six months of horror I endured there at the end of the 20th century — and “endure” is certainly a wise term for the experience.

But what does it mean?  I suggest, as the nuns would say, No pain, no gain.

Checker has, rather famously, called school boards “an aberration, an anachronism, an educational sinkhole,” and has reimagined local control (here).  Mike has asked (here), “If America’s school boards truly are powerless, that sounds like what we’ve got in communities all around the country.”  (My comment on Mike’s post began this way: “Mike, Having emerged from a two-and-a-half hour school board meeting with my head handed to me — how many heads can one lose in this effort? — I must say that I sympathize…”)  And sure, as Mathews points out, school boards  seem to be a dying species: 80,000 of them in 1950; fewer than 14,000 today.

In my own Flypaper “Field Notes” (see here,  here, here, and here ) I no doubt give the impression that I am a sacrificial lamb. As Jay Greene once told me, replying to one of my rah-rah school board posts (and I have the printout of this message taped to my computer screen):  “Even if by some miracle a dissenter can slip onto the board, there are tricks that the status quo uses to neutralize that person.”

No kidding. I have been neutralized on more ocassions than I can count.  But as the Irish might say, it’s the fight that counts. Democracy is built on a belief in infinite partisanship and endless argument.  Where better to have that fight than the local school library or cafeteria?

The question in this debate is whether we need to fix the status quo or kill school boards.

My own view is summed up by a Rick Hess post a few months ago, “School Boards as a Symptom, Not the Cause..”

All of the terrible things Mathews lists as typifying school boards  –  “neutered,” “elected amateurs,” “political squabbles,” “like dinosaurs,” “pushed aside” – are true.  Especially the apathy.  “What saves boards politically in most communities,” he writes, “is that only a few activists pay attention to them.” I’ve seen that.  In a district with 10,000 registered voters, I was elected to my board with  just 92 write-in votes;  no one had even bothered to put their name on the ballot.

But let’s not blame the victim here. All of this  nonsense is the result of problems in our democracy.  As I wrote in a 2009 Education Week commentary (for those of you with subscriptions),

Instead of seeing school boards’  irrelevance as evidence of the need to hurry them out the door, we need to wonder whether such irrelevance is, like the disappearance of the frog, a sign of broader environmental stress.

We have to clean the polluted ecosystem, not kill off the frog. But we also have to recognize that, unlike the poor frog, we have multiple adaptive strategies. School boards must see themselves for what they are—the only relevant link between communities and schools—and take responsibility for their role in governing districts.

So, what I propose (and I have not read  Mr. Maeroff’s book, which may have great suggestions) is this: We create more local school boards (forget Lou Gerstner’s idea of 70 districts total in the country!)  and give them more power, with the appropriate transparency and support, and the lambs of accountability and excellence will follow.

–Peter Meyer

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