Understanding Bullshit: The Board of Education
School boards are a joke (a bad joke) that has gone too far. “Kill all the school boards!” Was the suggestion from the Center for American Progress’ Matt Miller back in 2008 as he outlined his vision for remaking how we govern education. It was a striking statement then, and it still is. But it’s also not nearly as far-fetched as it might at first sound.
Indeed, critics of school boards have a long and legitimate list of grievances. Turnout in school board elections is often quite low, making it easier for special interests (often groups with single-focus ideological agendas or factions interested mostly in steering contracts to themselves and their friends) to get candidates elected. In many places, the very nature of school-board politics seems to draw people with axes to grind, rather than disinterested civic leaders. "You see so many school boards where board members are in conflict with the district," says the University of Memphis' Tom Glass. "They're supposed to be setting policy for the organization, but they themselves are in conflict with it."
Into this mix, we also throw people who often have no background in finance, administration, consensus-building, political leadership or even education all skills that the job of a school board member practically demands. Only 18 states require some sort of training for new members, and even then it is often cursory or quickly forgotten in the hue and cry of meetings and decision making. It's a frightening spectacle. You could argue that these are the people in charge of America's future, and they don't know why they're there or what they're doing once they are there. It's close-up horror. (Made more visible during the pandemic).
Moreover, the electoral process is a dicey method of building a school board with the right set of skills to transform a troubled system. With school systems needing reinvention and transformation, can the electoral process alone, elect the right portfolio of abilities and experience, the right mix of people to serve together? (Probably not).
While most communities have the civic will needed to address issues, it can still be really hard to find the right people, then persuade those people you would want on the board to actually run for office, serve in office, and, in most districts, work unpaid. (Oh, and you now have to raise $25,000 - $50,000 and spend the next three months campaigning).
Approximately 85 percent of all school board members are elected (this is a school boards biggest flaw) the rest are political appointees whose sole purpose is to ensure the kind of education that their communities want. (The dirty little secret of having a local school board is the enormous tax advantage it confers on better-off Americans: communities with high property wealth can tax themselves at lower rates).
This makes school board members, first and foremost, whether they like it or not, politicians who need to have their names in the news frequently, and who must demonstrate in a short time (typically four years) that they have improved the educational system. (Spoiler: school boards do not accomplish much in the way of improving schools, as they are more like figureheads than legitimate decision makers).
This leads to a short-term balance-sheet mentality, in which looking good is much more important than being good. The ever-shifting tides of educational theory are roiled by the rapid turnover of politicians and the educational bureaucracies respond by becoming more and more insecure and rigid.
And so the real issue is whether we want an elected board at all. Our school system is far too valuable, and its work is far too urgent, to leave in the care of people who, together, comprise a sort of coarse situation comedy. (As Mark Twain once said: "First God made idiots, That was for practice. Then he made school boards.") Whose officials spend a lot of the public’s money, provide millions of jobs and most importantly, help shape the future for many young Americans.
Advocates contend that the school board structure gives communities a direct voice in governance and that members are held accountable through the election process. A sentiment which crosses party lines (much like herpes). Yet, considering that the majority of a schools budget is formally considered off limits to democratic control, constituted by the "fixed costs" of employee compensation, transportation, and utilities, and since most matters of ordinary school administration are tightly constrained by either state or federal law. Most school systems pretty much run themselves (often into the ground). If a school board's authority is to be even more limited than it is already and if the public's ability to influence the direction of its schools is to be reduced to nothing, there's little reason to have school boards in the first place. In that case the superintendents themselves should be elected (though of course they would never accept the accountability that would come with it). This is not to even mention the meddling that school board members do. The ones who interfere in the day-to-day operations of their school systems are not rare, and this often extends as far as giving orders to administrators other than the superintendent.
A final problem of school boards affects only boards without the power to levy taxes and control their own budgets. Maryland and Virginia are among those states whose boards must request funding from local governing authorities. In this difficult situation, each group believes it controls education and each tends to take political potshots blaming the ills of the schools on the other. Consistency and planning are again the victims.
Another victim is employee relations. Unions are forced to negotiate with a group that does not actually have funding authority. The school board can then blame the local government for not providing adequate compensation, the local government can in turn fault the school board for mismanagement and the union is left to become more frustrated, angry and strident in its demands. It's a ridiculous system, and one with serious costs to education.
It could of course be argued that county commissioners, municipal officials, or whoever the local governing body may be, will be just as responsive to political pressures as the school board if they are abolished and replaced. Why take control away from one group of politicians -- a group that specializes in educational issues -- and give it to another group with no such special interest?
Fair enough. Although it could be the case that it's far better that the people overseeing education be a group with other concerns and campaign issues than a group whose success depends solely on education. With other issues to deal with, politicians are better able to resist the temptation of short-term educational projects that only seek to grab attention.
Besides, there really aren't that many major policy issues for school boards to decide, and much of their time is spent making decisions that would be better left to professionals. (Perhaps the worst board member is not the one who knows nothing about the educational system, but rather the one who tries to know too much).
Look, I understand that most board members are well-meaning (probably intelligent) people and certainly the number of morons who serve on them is no greater than among elected officials anywhere else. But in all of these efforts, we must understand one paradox: only by transcending local control can we create genuine autonomy for our schools. Because the board's image as a group of petty, incompetent officials more concerned with self-promotion than with public education, is an accurate portrayal. The result of which, on view daily at any school board office, is bringing the whole concept of an elected board into disrepute. (There is a joke among educators: When a doctor makes a mistake the patient dies; when a lawyer makes a mistake the client goes to jail; when a teacher makes a mistake that student grows up to be a school board member).