School boards: A vital debate

The Fordham panel on school boards this afternoon, most of which I caught on the web, was an important one and I recommend it to anyone interested in school governance issues. (We were told that the video should be available on the Fordham website by Thursday).

I would like to make four quick observations prompted by the discussion:

1.? Size matters.? It seems clear that we need to think along two tracks in redesigning school governance structures for the future: forms of direct democracy and those of representative democracy. Clearly, consolidation of authority (either through state-wide governance systems or mayoral control) will take us in the latter direction. The question for Americans, steeped in a culture that prizes autonomy and diversity, is whether we know how to do the consolidation thing very well.

2. Responsiveness matters. Whether it is responding to the parent with a concern about a teacher, digesting a research study on best practices, or meeting the challenges of a crumbling economy, the school system that can adjust to such varying kinds of inputs is no doubt better off than one that can't. The need to be responsive on these various levels is what should guide us in working out governance issues for the future.

3. Finances.? This is the toughest nut to crack and I got no special insights from our panelists on the subject today (though I admit to taking a couple of breaks and may have missed something). The best direction to move, as Terry Moe suggests in the current Ed Week,? is toward a system in which the money follows the student. ?This is one of the more threatening ideas to school boards ? and perhaps the major reason they seem so anti-charter.

4. Lay control.? One of the troubling trends in school board governance is the attempt to professionalize the institution.? Though several of the panelists today expressed the need for board member ?training,? I would argue that such training only adds barnacles to the bureaucracy.? As one of the audience questioners suggested, we have a tradition in the United States of lay people running the show. Our military is the primary example.? It is a healthy tradition and we need to encourage people with a diversity of non-education backgrounds to be on school boards to keep our educators honest.

Are school boards vital?? Only if we make them so.

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