The darkest island of American governance may be the local school board. Why do we need it? With the states involved in an unprecedented wave of school reforms, are the local boards facilitators or enemies of change? There are 15,000 such boards with no less than 97,000 elected members. But rarely does anyone subject them to a tough national look.
Now comes the first big study of school boards in memory. The nationwide survey of school boards, and what communities have to say about them, was done by the Institute for Educational Leadership, a Washington-based research group.
Two fascinating but contradictory conclusions emerge: Americans instinctively embrace the idea of school boards, expect they'll be a bulwark of lay responsibility for the community's schools, an institution that "a free democratic society can't be without." And some school districts--those in Pittsburgh and Columbus, for example--approach the ideal.
But the study also found "deep public apathy" about school boards, "abysmally low" turnouts for board elections and general ignorance.
In easier times, this mismatch--revering an ideal, ignoring it in practice--might make little difference. But this is the 1980s, a decade of agonizing reappraisal of public education, of fear that this nation may be no match for lean and hungry competitors on the world economic stage.
Since the 1983 "Nation at Risk" report on deficiencies in U.S. education, state governments, usually in partnership with business, have instituted a historic wave of school reforms seeking to toughen curriculums, raise graduation standards, strengthen teacher corps. If school boards had been on the ball, they'd have led early on these fronts. Scarcely any did.
School boards may be standing on political quicksand. School enrollments are increasingly black and Latino; by 1991, 25%of U.S. public-school students will be from minority groups; half will come from single-parent homes. Minority politicians, especially in larger cities, are gaining more school-board seats, displacing old white Establishment figures. As the study underscores, school boards are too often isolated from mainstream power structures. They rarely have formal ways to communicate with business leadership.
Will an increasingly old, overwhelmingly white voting public support increasingly minority schools? Conversely, how can city or county governments map out an economic survival path well into the 21st Century, when the most important "futures" agenda item--education--is under legal control of independent duchies called school boards?
The IEL report outlines all sorts of "good practices" to make school boards function better, such as training, orientation courses and independent evaluations. But a smart board would think a lot further. Even though many boards have independent tax bases, they should arrange periodic in-depth meetings--maybe a retreat or two a year--with local mayors and city or county councils. The goal would be to work on common agendas, but just as important, to start dealing the board into the mainstream political power structure.
One of the myths purveyed by progressive reformers of the early 20th Century was that education could be "removed" from common politics. But politics decides the priorities of a society, its allocation of resources.
School boards can't escape severe tests. So poor is the level of performance in many districts that the National Governors Assn. in August recommended that states set clear performance standards, then declare the worst districts "bankrupt" and put them into some form of state "receivership."
The education establishment trembled at the "receivership" idea; Thomas A. Shannon, executive director of the National School Boards Assn. called it "Draconian," "unworkable and open to political abuse." But Shannon's proposed "cure"--ballot-box retaliation against delinquent boards--is demonstrably unworkable when few citizens turn out for board elections. Perhaps school boards are an idea whose time has come, and gone.
At a minimum, the time is more than ripe for increased experimentation--school vouchers, for example. Brookings Institution scholars John Chubb and Terry Moe argue that public schools become victims of bureaucracies that routinize and regulate instead of encouraging a lively setting for learning. Chubb and Moe would substitute a free market in education--essentially independent schools among which parents could choose.
A heretical idea in "democratic" America? Perhaps. But even the governors association now suggests giving parents choice, breaking up the educators' full monopoly by letting parents pick the public school for their kids to attend. And by permitting junior and high school students to take courses at public colleges. That's now law in Minnesota over heated opposition of the public-school establishment.
Rare is the school board that even toys with such innovative approaches. But the whirlwind of change has just started. Schools are being thrust on a roller coaster of experimentation. Not because education establishments choose it, but because the state governments, and their business allies, have the clout to make it happen.
The question is: Will the traditional school boards be able to keep their seats as the velocity builds?