Requirements for school board members?

Amy Fagan

As you may know, last week we hosted a terrific event here at the Fordham Institute, Are Local School Boards Vital in 21st Century America?

Our excellent panel consisted of: Anne L. Bryant, executive director of the National School Boards Association; Gene I. Maeroff, founding director of the Hechinger Institute, Teachers College, Columbia University and author of School Boards in America: A Flawed Exercise in Democracy; Christopher S. Barclay, president of the Montgomery County Board of Education, Maryland; and our own Chester E. Finn, Jr., president of the Fordham Institute. The group was moderated by Fordham Institute Executive Vice President Mike Petrilli.

I?wanted to?quickly highlight a recent?interview Mike did with EducationNews.org about the event. (There have been a few other write-ups about the event too, including this one from the NSBA.)

Also, since we didn't have time during the event to get to all of the questions that folks had emailed in, we thought we'd throw one out to the panelists after the fact and see what they had to say.

We actually saw a few email questions about credentials for school-board members. We'll paraphrase here. Basically folks wondered whether there should there be minimum requirements for local school-board candidates? An undergrad degree or at least a 2-year college degree? What are some other qualifications for those who are making curricular and budgetary decisions for the county's students?

Here are the panelists' responses, via an email exchange:

Anne Bryant:

If you look at School Boards Circa 2010 you will see that board members are far more educated than the average citizen. To mandate a degree requirement for this elected office and not for others (city council, state legislature, congress, or the presidency!) would seem strange. Just think, Bill Gates would not be eligible to sit on a school board... of course ?that might be a good thing... just teasing... Anne

Checker Finn:

I don't think credentialing school-board members in advance would accomplish any more than credentialing teachers. (And unlike my fellow panelists, I have about as little faith in school-board member "training" as I do in "professional development" for teachers. If you start with talent, intellect, knowledge, and commitment, you tend to get good teachers. If you don't, it's mighty darn hard to set right after the fact. I have approximately the same view of school-board members. There's no harm in supplying them some "process" skills and background info, no; but it isn't going to transform anybody.) Basically, if we're going to continue to have elected school boards, I would tend to rely on transparency. In order to run, they should declare in public?like on a central website:

a) their resume;

b) their prior relationship, if any, to the school system and/or anyone who has ever worked for the school system;

c) any/all campaign contributions and endorsements;

d) why they want to be on the school board;

e) how they're different from their competitors; and

f) their views on about ten key issues.

This info should be made widely available to voters through multiple means and media. And school board elections should be held on the same day in November as presidential, gubernatorial and congressional elections.

That's my advice.

Anne Bryant's follow:

Checker, Sounds like good advice. And from the best school-board campaign brochures/websites I have seen, you have outlined their campaign literature. But I like your ten issues idea... Not seen that.

So, want to run??

Checker Finn's reply:

If I were to run, I'd end up running against the estimable chairman of the Mont. Co. school board, which I wouldn't want to do?and not least because I'd lose!

Gene Maeroff:

My reaction was similar to Checker's. I would capture the kinds of information that he describes and some other questions about positions and background in what I propose to call a Universal Bio for school-board candidates across the country.?The responses of each candidate?would be posted at each Board of Education web site as part of the run-up to the election. I could imagine the NSBA taking the lead through the state organizations in encouraging the states and localities to adopt this approach.

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