5 lessons from 5 years on the school board

"But you must remember, my fellow-citizens,
that eternal vigilance by the people is the price of liberty,
and that you must pay the price if you wish to secure the blessing.
It behooves you, therefore, to be watchful in your States as well as in the Federal Government."
—Andrew Jackson, Farewell Address, March 4, 1837

At some low point in my tenure on the board of education in my small school district, a friend advised, “Don’t worry. You are like gravity. They always know that you are there.”

Much good can come from keeping institutions honest.

Though I aspired to being more than a reminder of some facts of life as member of a board of education, gravity was at least a starting point. And I appreciated my friend’s larger message: that much good can come from keeping institutions honest. In fact, as I reflect on the last five years of public service, I’m thinking that keeping governments honest may be the single most important duty of every citizen.

And in honor of the holiday, I offer five lessons learned, which to my mind seem close to self-evident truths, about school governance:

1. Don’t underestimate the value of information

My claim to fame at board meetings was asking questions. What does this project cost? When would it be finished? By whom? What happens if it doesn’t get done? Does the program improve student achievement? How? “What is this, a Congressional hearing?” one colleague once complained. Watching boards in action over the years (more precisely, watching their unstudied inaction), I know this: Districts do not willingly give up information—and the public is not clamoring to get it. (See number three below for suggestions about the latter affliction.) And I also know the power of information. I once wrote a story about our district in which I noted that the windows on one of our school buildings had not been washed for years. They were cleaned the day after the article was published.

One of Thomas Jefferson’s more famous remarks was,

I know no safe depositary of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.

As E.D. Hirsch has pointed out, since the quote is usually cited for free press purposes, the part about informing the peoples’ discretion with education is not so well known. But for education reformers and policymakers, Jefferson must be heeded on both levels. Yes, it is through education that we create citizens to whom we can entrust “the ultimate powers of the society,” but it is also an informed public that is necessary to the governance of that education system.

2. Don’t underestimate the bureaucracy’s desire to impede the flow of information

I’m told I hold the record in my district for a single Freedom of Information Law request: a copy of a 120-page facilities condition report (at twenty-five cents a page!) And I have often noted my board colleagues’ votes to forgo seeing documents just to keep me from seeing them. Even the janitors get it. “These guys spend more time trying to cover up their problems,” one of them once told me, “than solving them.”

Thus the corollary to the “ultimate powers” rule above is the “least government” rule that was also part of the original governance model: Ultimate powers do not reside in the government, nor should they. Needless to say, the Founders had a healthy distrust of government—and we should too. As James Madison, Jefferson’s collaborator on the Bill of Rights and the “father of the Constitution,” would put it, the “great object” of the first ten amendments was to “limit and qualify the powers of Government.”* From the beginning, the Founders appreciated the need, in Madison’s words, to “restrain…the Federal Government” and guard against “the abuse of the powers of the General Government.”

From my observations, government mischief remains a fact of governance life if not a self-evident truth. Even at its most mundane, government is a cranky way of getting things done.

3. People do count

Though we have become a nation devoted to “data-driven decisionmaking,” we can’t avoid the reality that (especially if Jefferson is right about where the ultimate powers reside) people make the decisions. We have suffered through one long era of trying to separate educational governance from “the people” (a.k.a. politics) and have come to learn, the hard way, that Jefferson and Madison were probably right. Not all “professionals” are created equal and we hand them our fates at our peril—in this case, the peril of our children and our future.

The solution: power to the people, direct current.

We have hardly shaken that Progressive-era pretense and there’s much about “evidence-based” learning that looks like a sheep of a different color. School boards are still constantly warned about micro-managing. “You have to trust the professionals,” we were told by a consultant from our state school boards association at a board “retreat” last year. “We have,” I countered, “and look where it has gotten us.”

And one of the most pernicious legacies of that Progressive era is the off-cycle elections; they discourage popular participation and empower special interests. Numerous state and federal mandates—laws protecting powerful teacher unions are among the most frightful at the local level—further discourage public participation in the life of their schools. Last year, voters in my district defeated a budget proposal by a three-to-one margin; but because of state law, the school board could override the decision of the voters—and it did, six to one.

Though “local control” does indeed need a makeover, as Checker Finn and Mike Petrilli recommend in their paper from last December’s governance symposium, they also argue that “our `marble cake’ policy structure of overlapped local, state, and national responsibility for schools has proven more adept at blocking or slowing needed change than at advancing it.”

The solution: power to the people, direct current.

4. Don’t give up on democracy

Or as Winston Churchill famously said,

Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

As I would learn in my five years on the board, there are no absolute victories and no deafening defeats in the land of education governance; just the constant hum of the bureaucracy trying to control the flow of information and—if you’re lucky—the shouts and murmurs of the “the people” complaining. Unfortunately, there is simply no alternative to eternal vigilance, but it must be vigilance in the interests of freedom and equal opportunity. There are plenty of reasons for wanting to leave “the people” out of it. They gum up the works, for one. They are lazy and apathetic for another. But what are the alternatives? I believe it was Churchill who also said, “Americans always get things right—after they’ve exhausted all the alternatives.”

We have to get back to making democracy work again.

5. The individual comes first

As George Washington said in his First Inaugural Address,

[T]he foundation of our national policy will be laid in the pure and immutable principles of private morality.

You cannot get a much grittier, more self-evident truth than that one. And so we come back to Jefferson and the need to nourish those principles with education. More than ever we need an informed people.

*The Madison quotes are from Origins of the Bill of Rights, by Leonard W. Levy.

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