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Should School Boards be Expelled?

Local boards were designed to take politics out of education. But increasing politicization of the boards themselves has led to calls to eliminate them.

LAUSD Board President Monica Garcia, right, and Schools Superintendent John Deasy, left, at a board meeting. During the Los Angeles school board elections in March, a record high -- $4.4 million -- was spent. (Photo: Luis Sinco/L.A. Times)

“Kill all the school boards.” That was the suggestion from the Center for American Progress’ Matt Miller 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 sound.

The notion of drastically redrawing the school governance structure has quietly but steadily gained support in the education reform era that began under No Child Left Behind and has continued with the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program. There are many reasons, foremost among them that U.S. student achievement seems to have stagnated. There’s also a growing perception that big money has started to corrupt the school board system. Look at the Los Angeles elections in March, where an estimated $4.4 million -- a record high -- was spent, much of it from outside groups supporting reform candidates.

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Advocates contend that the school board structure gives communities a direct voice in governance and that members are held accountable through the election process. But there’s an increasing sense among others that it may be time to eliminate school boards altogether. The idea has crossed party lines. The Center for American Progress is a generally liberal institution, but Chester Finn, president of the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute and a former assistant education secretary under President Ronald Reagan, has issued similar decrees. “School boards are an aberration, an anachronism, an education sinkhole,” he said in 2006. “Put this dysfunctional arrangement out of its misery.”

But what would take the school board’s place? A number of real-world models are emerging. In cities like New York, mayoral control has persevered. Michael Bloomberg has set an ambitious reform agenda as the head of his city’s school system. “There’s this movement toward getting these general-purpose governments back into education policy,” says Michael Petrilli, executive vice president at the Fordham Institute and a former education official in the George W. Bush administration. “The point of school boards was to take politics out of education. But these school boards are easily captured by special interest groups.”

The rise of charter schools has provided another new frontier. The entire concept of charter schools is that they’re publicly funded but independently controlled -- outside the purview of a school board. Nearly every state now authorizes charters in one form or another, and the number of students enrolled in them more than quadrupled in the past decade.

“I could imagine a future where every school is a charter school,” Petrilli says, “so you no longer have a school board that’s overseeing an entire city.”

Some states and localities have experimented with recovery school districts, jurisdictions not bound by geography but instead built around having one body oversee failing schools. New Orleans pioneered the model in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, but it’s also gained support in Michigan and Tennessee. Some education experts have suggested taking things further and handing complete control back to the states, which would serve as the higher authority for individual schools, cutting out the school board.

Don’t expect a national move to disband school boards. Any changes will likely happen on a crisis-by-crisis basis. The Columbus, Ohio, City Schools, for example, have been thrown into chaos recently by a data-scamming scandal that touches the top levels of the district’s administration. Some have suggested that Mayor Michael Coleman take a more active role as public outcry mounts.

“Because of our fragmented system, this stuff is going to be piecemeal. Some of these ideas are going to spread faster than others,” Petrilli says. “I think they’re going to spread the fastest in places where people see the biggest problems.”

Brian Peteritas is a GOVERNING contributor.
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