[caption id="" align="alignright" width="250" caption="Click to watch a video of this commentary, as part of Fordham's recent event Are School Boards Vital in the 21st Century?"][/caption]

The shortcomings of elected local school boards are only the most obvious of the many problems of education governance in the United States in 2011.? To be sure, those boards are a fundamental part, maybe the largest part, of our customary governance arrangements, but my discontent with them is just part of my larger dissatisfaction with all traditional governance and structural arrangements for K-12 education on these shores.

These arrangements, though they differ some from place to place, generally display four characteristics that make them obsolete at best and dysfunctional at their all-too-common worst:

First, while formal constitutional responsibility for educating kids belongs to the states, the actual delivery of that education falls squarely on local education agencies, typically called districts, which are geographically defined, most often by the boundaries of a city, town, county, or other municipality. Kids are generally educated in public schools operated by these districts.

Second, though states have shouldered some responsibility for financing public education, usually by decreeing a minimum or ?foundation? level of per-pupil spending, sizable portions of education revenue are locally generated through property taxes, bond levies, and such. Those amounts differ enormously from place to place within the same state and are uncommonly vulnerable to interest group manipulation...

Amy Fagan

In case you missed it, here is the video of our April 26 event, Are Local School Boards Vital in 21st Century America? It was a great discussion; 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.

Obviously you can watch the video in full. But here's?one overview/summary that was written about the event. NSBA has posted a write-up about it, too.?And below we've pulled together a few highlights of our own as well?. thanks to Fordham's Daniela Fairchild, who tweeted the entire event. (paraphrased)

Anne Bryant: School boards are the connection to the community. ? Not all school boards are perfect. Nothing is perfect. Checker Finn isn't perfect. (laughter erupts) ...School boards are transparent and accountable to public and members want reform.


In a generally positive profile of Jean-Claude Brizard, Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel's pick for new Chicago school system chief, the Sun-Times applauds the nominee for ?the charismatic way? in which he refused to talk to the paper's reporter, who then notes that that?.

?is typical of the ambitious former physics teacher who emigrated from Haiti as a boy, used the U.S. education system to drag himself up by the bootstraps from housing project poverty, then applied the same zeal to reforming the system that helped him, say friends and enemies alike in this upstate New York city of 210,000.

This jumped out at me in part because of the recent Joe Nocera Limits of Reform op-ed column in the NYT ? please see my Education Unbound* and the accompanying Comments (other interesting Comments on the Education Next version) and my Culture of Poverty?or the Poverty of Culture? post in Flypaper last October.

My argument about poverty is simple: there are too many millions of people like Brizard who ?used the U.S. education system? to drag themselves out of poverty to count them as exceptions that prove some demography is destiny rule.? (I'm sure Randi Weingarten would agree.) There are also too many charters and charter networks and private systems (e.g. the Catholics) that are getting the job done to dismiss them as anomalies.

No, these successful ? and, yes, increasingly replicable and scalable ? school (not social service!) systems are educating poor kids...

Forgetting for a moment the perhaps unfortunate coinincidence of another Bush governor taking his state education formula national (remember NCLB?), we have a pleasant story in today's Times about former Florida governor Jeb Bush traveling the country talking education.? In fact, there is much to admire about what Florida has done ? see Checker's Let's Hear it for Florida! and Eric Hanushek's Florida Positions Itself at the Forefront ? and this story mentions some of them:

He has hopped around the country to campaign for candidates, hold meetings and lobby for Florida-style changes. They include private-school vouchers, online courses and requiring third-graders to pass reading tests before they move up to fourth grade, rather than being pushed along with their peers ? or ?social promotion.?

We learn that Bush's Foundation for Excellence in Education ?received $2.9 million in 2009 from the Gates and Broad foundations, ?among others,? and that he has been ?closely involved? in education reform initiatives in a half dozen states, including Minnesota, Indiana, Oklahoma, and Utah. Go, Jeb, Go.

Is he running for president?? Of course not.

Though Mike wouldn't allow me anywhere near today's Fordham event, Are Local School Boards Vital in 21st Century America? I will answer the question here: Yes, more so than ever.? But if you're not in Washington this afternoon and can't make it over to 16th Street, tune in on the Web, 4pm.

The discussion features Anne Bryant, head of the National School Boards Association; Chris Barclay, president of the the Montgomery County (MD) Board of Education; Checker Lost at Sea Finn; and Gene I. Maeroff, Founding Director, Hechinger Institute, Teachers College, Columbia University and author of School Boards in America: A Flawed Exercise in Democracy.

Here's the quick argument for ?more so than ever?: ?If we are able to create differentiated instruction for children using digital technology, we should be able to use computers to put the demos back into education governance.? Like it or not, school boards as an expression of our democratic values and practices are vital.

--Peter Meyer, Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow

The Fordham panel on school boards this afternoon, most of which I caught on the web, was an important one and I recommend it to anyone interested in school governance issues. (We were told that the video should be available on the Fordham website by Thursday).

I would like to make four quick observations prompted by the discussion:

1.? Size matters.? It seems clear that we need to think along two tracks in redesigning school governance structures for the future: forms of direct democracy and those of representative democracy. Clearly, consolidation of authority (either through state-wide governance systems or mayoral control) will take us in the latter direction. The question for Americans, steeped in a culture that prizes autonomy and diversity, is whether we know how to do the consolidation thing very well.

2. Responsiveness matters. Whether it is responding to the parent with a concern about a teacher, digesting a research study on best practices, or meeting the challenges of a crumbling economy, the school system that can adjust to such varying kinds of inputs is no doubt better off than one that can't. The need to be responsive on these various levels is what should guide us in working out governance issues for the future.

3. Finances.? This is the toughest nut to crack and I got no special insights from our panelists on the subject today (though I admit to taking a couple of breaks and may have missed something). The best...

Unfortunately, in his Limits of School Reform essay this morning, the newest op-ed columnist for the Times, Joe Nocera, shows the limits of logic in thinking about the subject ? or writing about it.? After throwing up the standard straw men ? ?At its core, the reform movement believes that great teachers and improved teaching methods are all that's required to improve student performance, so that's all the reformers focus on,? ?reformers act as if a student's home life is irrelevant,? ?Dodd [the teacher] does everything a school reformer could hope for?? ? he rolls out the woefully tired and hopelessly unhelpful nostrum: ??What needs to be acknowledged, however, is that school reform won't fix everything.?

Thanks, Joe. I didn't know that.

In fact, Nocera, who wrote the Talking Business column for the Times before landing the plum assignment on the paper's prestigious op-ed page, will one day see this essay as beginner's jitters.? He does hit all the high notes ? the ravages of poverty, the lessons of James Coleman, the further lessons of Richard Rothstein, even bringing in Joel Klein as the heartless reformer who thinks a student's home life is ?irrelevant? ? but ends up being completely off-key,? forgetting that we now have dozens, if not hundreds, of schools that are succeeding in educating poor children. He also conveniently forgets that the Catholics have been doing it rather successfully for many decades, if not centuries. And, in fact, Nocera ignores most of the last...

In a major profile of the new chancellor of New York City's schools, the Sunday Times headline writer sums up Dennis Walcott nicely: A Schools Chief With a Knack for Conciliation. While, over in the Windy City, the Tribune went to slightly greater length to explain the appointment of Jean-Claude Brizard to head its schools:? New CPS chief leaves old district mired in questions, controversy.

Other than the size of the challenge (New York's is the largest school district in the nation; Chicago, the third largest), one of the things the two appointments have in common is that they are creatures of mayoral authority.? Michael Bloomberg, who stumbled into his third term as major domo of the Big Apple (no one calls it that any more), tripped badly when he tried to force another non-educator on the system.? He recovered quickly and moved one of his loyal deputies,? Walcott, into the job.

Chicago, on the other hand, is about to get a new mayor, Rahm Emanuel, who, while no slouch in the politics department (serving six years in Congress and several as a senior advisor to two presidents, including two as Barack Obama's chief of staff), has never run a city, much less an education system.? He might do well to talk to Adrian Fenty, the one-term mayor of Washington, DC., as well as Bloomberg, since, at first glance, Emanuel seems to have tripped coming out of the gate (he's not sworn in until next...

The Centennial State has a great track record in education reform--bipartisan, even--which is why it was so disappointing to so many people when Colorado didn't win Race to the Top funds last summer, and now it looks like we're going to be disappointed once again. Not by Washington this time but by the state's very own Board of Education, which yesterday named a thoroughly lackluster pair of finalists for the key role of education commissioner.

No doubt they're both swell fellows. One is a veteran school administrator (and current acting commissioner), the other a former Air Force general who has recently been running a mid-size district in suburban Denver. They have acceptable credentials. But there's precious little evidence that either is a dedicated reformer, a visionary leader, a rocker of education boats, or a fit colleague for the burgeoning crop of "chiefs for change" in places like NJ, NM, TN, LA, VA, RI and on and on and on.

Never mind Colorado's honorable past as a reform leader in charter schools, teacher evaluations and more. This is no time to rest on laurels. The heavy lifting is really just getting underway. (There's reason to worry, for example, that IMPLEMENTATION of historic Senate Bill 191 is off to a vexed start; there's reason to fear backsliding on "common core" standards; there's talk of canceling future assessment of student writing; the state's U.S. history standards suck. Etc. Etc. Etc.)

In short, it's a time for forceful reformist energy...