Are school boards dead-ends for reformers?

Among the various hats I wear (though please don't tell Checker ?School boards are an aberration, an anachronism, an educational sinkhole. Put this dysfunctional arrangement out of its misery?? Finn) is that of member of the Board of Education. I have written about my tiny upstate school district in Education Next and from time to time will blog about my adventures as a public official. It ain't fun, but I'm not ready yet to agree with my new boss that it is a sinkhole.

I will be the first to admit, however, that he is in good company. Just above the Finn ?dysfunctional arrangement? comment on the website cited above is the famous one from Mark Twain: ?In the first place God made idiots. This was for practice. Then He made School Boards.? That too has some truth in it.

But no matter what side of the ideological coin you're on, school board membership draws attention ? from townsfolk and policy gurus. I called my brother-in-law Ed Kealy, who just retired as head of the proto-liberal Committee for Education Funding and who also used to work for the National School Boards Association, and asked, ?Would you like to collaborate on a book about saving school boards??

Said Ed: ?I didn't know they needed saving.?

If there's a twain that don't meet on this issue, it's that of fundamental faith. I have taped to my computer screen ? this is old technology meets new ? a comment from Jay Greene, who counseled, ?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.?

Are school boards dead-ends for reformers?

I don't think so. But that view requires a faith in democracy that is, as Churchill might have opined, misplaced. School boards are not pretty. But what else do we have?

If nothing else, membership on a school board, which gets you a ticket to the trenches of American education as well as a seat at the table of American exceptionalism, is a lesson in hubris.? And in democracy. It's a hat worth trying on.

One of my favorite Milton Friedman comments, cited by Rick Hess in his new book Education Unbound: The Promise and Practice of Greenfield Schooling, is ?the market is not a cow to be milked.?? Rick's point was that school choice is not such a cow. It's simply a given. We need choice like we need air.

School boards? I'm sorry to say that until we can get a system that cuts out the middle man, we're stuck with them. They may not need saving, but they need educating.

-Peter Meyer

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