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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About the Editor
Peter Meyer is an adjunct fellow with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Since 1991, Meyer has focused his attentions on education reform in the United States, an interest joined while writing a profile of education reformer E.D. Hirsch for Life. Meyer subsequently helped found a charter school, served on his local Board of Education (twice) and, for the last eight years, has been an editor at Education Next.
May 23, 2013
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