Board’s Eye View: Important issues for the 21st Century

Welcome to Board’s Eye View. The blog name comes from my
location at ground zero of educational governance: member of the board of
education. Though I know that some see such boards as a shredded remnant of the
19th century, they remain, 14,000-plus strong, the default governance clutch of
the 21st century American public school engine. Love ‘em or leave ‘em—they are
in the driver’s seat. Endangered species or albatross, to change metaphors,
school boards pose the central question for America’s education future: Do “the
people” dictate education policy? And if so, how?

I first ran for school board in the late 1990s. It was a treat, since I had
not run for anything since high school.  Some of the old political instincts returned and I won. But I
soon learned that it was more like high school than anything I’d seen in the
adult world and I resigned after just six months, head spinning. (I recounted my
experience for Education
Next
,
(called “A Board’s Eye View”) in 2005.)  

Seven years later, when I noticed that there were no official candidates on
the school board election ballot—a new low in our little district’s slide to
dysfunction—I decided that I had a chance to make amends for my quitting ways
and mounted a stealth email campaign: I won again, with 92 write-in votes, a
shock to a board that had not moved the achievement needle at all and with whom
I had continued to battle—from the audience at board meetings, in the letters
column of the local newspaper, at dinner parties, and in church vestibules. My
new board colleagues were not happy about my victory and spent most of the next
year deflecting my attempts at being part of the board (they would actually
vote NOT to see documents, such as multi-million dollar construction contracts,
just to keep them out of my hands).    

Five years into this latest ride on the education governance roller-coaster,
I am a convinced if not convicted Churchillian: school boards are a lousy way to
do education, but there isn’t anything better.  I wrote as much for an Education
Week
commentary a couple of years ago:

“For all their problems… I believe school boards are vital institutions. It
is the country’s gradual neutering of school boards that has helped cripple our
education system. Instead of seeing school boards’ apparent 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.”

Nevertheless, I keep a copy of an email Jay Greene sent me several years
ago—printed out and taped to a wall—that reads, in part:

“Even if, by some miracle, a dissenter can slip onto the board, there are
tricks that the status quo uses to neutralize that person. And eventually
they’ll organize a challenger who will unseat you. It sounds like elected
school boards are a dead-end for reformers.”

Tricks, indeed. Challengers, of course. But does that mean that boards are
dead-ends for reformers? Or are they our last best hope at saving American
democracy?

Indeed, as many observers have pointed out, school boards are a remnant of the
19th century and survived the 20th, though not without some radical
reshaping in the form of consolidation. New York State, for example, had 10,000
school boards in 1900; today, just a few over 700. Perhaps this consolidation is
the cause of our current education malaise, an indicator species, as I’ve said,
of a deeper political system breakdown.

It may not be the perfect perch from which to view the challenges of
organizing a system for educating our children, but  it remains one of the few places where every modern education
issue—from curriculum to finance, pedagogy to P.E.—is experienced and discussed
on a regular basis, by parents, students, teachers, taxpayers. Most
importantly, though, it is a seat from which one sees the incredible diversity
that is America and Americans.  And
the question for the 21st century is much the same as it was in the 18th: Do we
want more government or less? 

What is different, of course, is that we have, over the course of the last century-and-a-half,
created a complex governance system that seems to have tied our schools in
knots. Today’s educational governance issues are many.  Do we want more
federal participation or less? Do we want more choice or less? Do we want
states or regional associations to do the heavy lifting? Do we want a more
rational and uniform school system or do we want a loosely decentralized
confederation of schools? What will online education do to education
governance? These were some of the questions raised by participants at the Fordham/CAP
conference
last December—and the papers
from that conference will serve as a blueprint for a discussion about
21st-century governance that the Board’s Eye View will continue.

By its very nature, public schooling suggests a communal duty to educate,
and thus a duty to govern. It is here that I hope this blog will attempt to put
us in touch with our nation’s history and the founding principles on which much
of that history is based. No other nation has built a governance system based
on the supremacy of the individual—and a concomitant belief that government
would answer to individuals. Can we keep that personal connection between the
individual and his or her government and still have an excellent education
system?

Join the conversation. Our future depends on your voices.

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