Local school boards have guided American public education for well over a century. Electing school board members to govern local schools embodies U.S commitment to democracy and the nation’s desire to have some influence over the education of children who reside here. While these values still resonate with the American public, changes in society and the way schools are governed have stripped these institutions of much of their power. Instead of deciding fundamental policy issues, these institutions are now left to implement the priorities and polices of the state and the federal government.
The reasons for the diminished role school boards now play reveal much about the legitimacy of the institution as a means of democratic participation and about its ability to address issues of concern such as inequality, poverty, and diversity. This entry examines some of the historical and contemporary forces that have influenced school board structure, composition, and function. From a historical perspective, there have been many forces at work that have tended to limit the participation of citizens in school board elections and have insulated these institutions from the publics they were supposed to serve. In the contemporary context, the inability of school boards to adequately represent increasingly diverse constituents coupled with the growth of the federal and state role in education has led some to conclude that boards have outlived their usefulness.
Tracing the history of school boards can provide new and important insights into ongoing debates about the governance of public schools. For example, the Center for Education and the Economy has advocated for school governance reforms that would radically limit the role of local boards in educational decisions by turning the ownership of local schools over to limited-liability corporations. Such proposals only make sense when they are viewed as part of an ongoing transformation in societal values and interests.
The Progressive Era
Small boards of education separated from municipal government and elected at large came into existence during the progressive reform movement of the 1890s. Prior to this time schools were often run as an extension of the municipal government or by large committees of laymen. During the mid-1800s, examples of large boards included Boston with 24 members, and Philadelphia which was broken into 24 separate areas each with its own school board. These boards had significant authority over the ways schools were run including issues of curriculum, finance, and assessment. Corruption and graft in local school politics were not uncommon during this period and as the nineteenth century came to a close, reformers and muckraking journalists joined hands to expose the political spoils system that often drove local school governance.
These reformers predominately consisted of elite community members such as businessmen and lawyers who sought to centralize control of schools for the purpose of improving efficiency and imposing corporate practices on the schools. Smaller boards and at-large elections were sought as a way to insure that elites would be elected to leadership positions, rather than ward representatives who might be too closely associated with an undesirable class or ethnicity. Such changes were supported by school superintendents who enjoyed increased power over issues such as the hiring and firing of teachers. Rather than focus on the day-to-day running of the schools, corporate style boards began to focus more on policy.
By the 1920s, school districts across the nation had adopted similar forms of governance characterized by small, policy-oriented boards, whose primary responsibility was hiring and evaluating the superintendent. These changes increased accountability by focusing authority in the office of the superintendent. At the same time, schools became more insulated from the general public and less attentive to the interests of poor and minority citizens.
The Limits Of Administrative Control
The power of school administrators continued to grow during the first half of the twentieth century as the nation more fully adopted the belief that educational decisions were largely technical matters best left to educational professionals rather than the lay public.
During this period, rapid population growth coupled with school district consolidations increased pressure on school boards to represent ever larger constituencies. For example in 1937 there were 120,000 school districts, a number that had shrunk to 40,000 by 1960. This pressure, coupled with consistently low voter turnout during school board elections threatened the legitimacy of these boards as governing institutions.
As problems of representation and legitimacy grew more pronounced, it became increasingly difficult for boards of education to balance competing interests and to deal with politically charged issues. In addition, the changes brought about by the Civil Rights Movement created greater political awareness, and placed even more demands on the educational system. In the new politics of the 1960s, educational interest groups became better informed, better organized, and better at using the media to their advantage. Many groups called for increased minority representation on school boards, and many of the largest urban districts sought to address their concerns by decentralizing their governance structures. Bucking the trend toward consolidation, cities such as Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York were divided into smaller districts with regional superintendents and/or policy boards. The hope was that increased democracy might serve as a check on administrative authority and increase the probability that minority concerns would be addressed.
While decentralization held promise for better representation, the end result was significant infighting among interest groups over material and symbolic resources. Rather than solve the problem of racial discrimination and segregation, the more politicized environment may have worked against change as groups sought to protect their interests in the short term. Many groups seemed to lose sight of the fact that failure to come to an adequate resolution of these issues at the local level would result in unilateral federal action.
Despite many districts growing experience with federal intervention in the form of desegregation orders, or financial support through programs such as the National Defense Education Act of 1958 (NDEA) (which focused on science education), and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA) (which focused on children in poverty), few school boards could have predicted the degree to which federal and state intervention would eventually eclipse local control.
A Crisis In Local Governance
Federal and state involvement in education has consistently increased since the 1960s. The passage of ESEA in 1965, and Public Law 94-42, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act in 1975 set the stage for increased federal influence in the form of leveraged funds. These laws created procedures and rules that needed to be followed in order for local districts to receive the funding and subjected schools to an increased level of federal oversight.
This trend toward centralized control was reinforced by a number of school-funding lawsuits that forced states to pay an increasing share in the cost of schooling in order to help equalize differences in the tax base between local districts. This shift in funding resulted in a greater state authority over education. These changes were followed by a number of influential national reports such as A Nation at Risk (1983) that argued for national solutions to our educational problems. This trend continued to intensify in the 1990s culminating with the passage of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) which gives the federal government unprecedented reach into areas formerly controlled by local districts such as program design and testing.
Despite limited evidence of real improvement resulting from federal intervention, support for ever more radical changes in local governance structures continues unabated. A noted authority, William Boyd, points out that elected school boards are under fire, especially in cities, and some have proposed confining them to policy-making and planning roles. Proposals such as these proceed from logic similar to that used by reformers in the 1890s which viewed local ward-based control as inefficient and ineffective. This time however, the problem has been characterized as the limiting influence of centralized bureaucracy (i.e., school boards) on creativity and choice. Interestingly, the proposed remedy to this is, most often, increased federal or state control of education with decentralized responsibility for implementing programs and procedures.
The pressure for these changes comes from what Boyd terms, “a double crisis of both performance and legitimacy.” With respect to performance, large numbers of students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds are failing to meet expectations for achievement. In terms of legitimacy, the “common school” established to meet the needs of a fairly homogeneous society in the mid-1800s is having difficulty coping with growing ethnic and religious diversity. One result of this change has been a growing demand for more choices in the kinds of education available.
Given these challenges, the future role of local school boards in this nation is far from clear. The race is on for an alternative institution to run our public schools and while democracy remains an important touchstone in symbolic terms, many current proposals for reform actually serve to limit citizen participation in school governance. Current governance reform proposals include options such as school choice and vouchers, mayoral control of schools, state takeovers, charter schools, and systems of schools owned by private corporations. Each of these will be discussed in turn.
These models of governance are a return to the prereform-era politics that blended educational and municipal governance. Moving to mayoral control would do away with school board elections altogether and replace them with an appointed system of governance. In cities such as Chicago, Boston, Detroit, Cleveland, and New York, mayors have significant power over schools. Proponents of these plans believe that high profile mayors provide greater accountability and responsiveness.
States now regularly intervene in “failing” districts. State takeovers are made for a number of reasons including poor student performance, fiscal mismanagement, and administrative incompetence. States typically only intervene when problems are persistent. Proponents of these measures believe that state intervention is the only way to help a struggling district regain its footing. Critics claim that state intervention usually does little to address the underlying problems such as racial tension and poverty.
Market-driven models of school governance have gained popularity with growth in the neoconservative movement. In general, neoconservatives typically view governments as wasteful and inefficient and strive to replace the government provision of services with market-based solutions, believing that competition is the key to improving productivity. In education, this has meant growing support for a variety of market-oriented reforms such as charter schools, vouchers, and contracting for services.
Charter schools represent a limited market-based reform as the schools continue to be public in nature and are financed through tax dollars. In general, charter schools are public schools that are formed by groups of people who want to provide an alternative to traditional public schools. Some proponents argue that charters will create competition for traditional public schools and force these schools to innovate and become more efficient if they hope to survive.
The role of school boards in this reform proposal is unclear. School boards may have some attenuated control over charters as they often have the authority to accept or reject charter proposals. However, once a charter school is established, it is the tenets of the charter that govern the school rather than the district school board.
The arguments for vouchers are similar to those offered in support of charter schools in that vouchers are hoped to stimulate competition. Unlike charter schools, however, voucher plans provide families with a monetary allowance or tax credit that they may spend on an educational institution of their choice. Under some plans, this money could be spent on public or private schools, which raises issues concerning the separation of church and state.
The role of school boards in a system with vouchers would essentially remain the same but would only focus on the public schools in the community. Few voucher proposals discuss the oversight of public moneys spent on private institutions though this is a potential role for the school board as well. Voucher proponents would likely argue that school board involvement of this type would create too much governmental regulation.
Contract For Services
Finally, contracting for services takes numerous forms including school district contracts for food service and maintenance as well as larger contracts for management services. While contracting for auxiliary services is common and largely accepted, contracting for management is still quite controversial. Like supporters of charters and vouchers, supporters of contracted Educational Management Organizations (EMOs) believe that hiring management companies to run schools will create greater efficiency and lead to reduction in educational costs.
Similar to charter schools, EMOs are often sheltered from certain regulations applied to public schools and are thought to provide opportunities for experimentation not possible in traditional public schools. The role of school boards in the case of EMOs is similar to their role with charter schools. Boards initially negotiate contracts with EMOs but then are largely uninvolved except in monitoring the terms of the contract. This is the approach favored in a recent report from the National Center for Education and the Economy which envisions school boards as data collection agencies and emissaries working out relationships with other governmental services. In this case, the schools themselves would be owned and run by the teachers.
While each of these proposals is different, they share an emphasis on accountability, choice, and efficiency. What is often lacking in these proposals seems to be is a sincere interest in the practice of democracy at the local level.
Outlook For Boards
Will school boards remain the primary means of governing public education in the years to come?
The probable answer is no. David Conley, an authority on the issue, suggests that local control will soon be more symbolic than real. Communities will continue to play a ceremonial role, but true policymaking will take place in state and federal legislatures. While such a conclusion seems warranted given the incursion of state and federal interests into school board business, school boards still represent a desire for popular governance that is not found in other institutions.
Such an aspiration speaks to the optimism of individuals and groups striving to work together to develop common aims. Unlike other more distant forms of governance, school boards have the potential to promote dialog and create forums for public discourse. Such interactions are necessary to reveal shared goals and aspirations. Without local boards, such a forum would not exist.
Over the next decade, the nation’s commitment to the concept of local control in education will be deeply challenged. School boards will only remain viable if local citizens reclaim their stake in the common good by demanding a forum in which such issues can be addressed.
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