School boards: fish, cut bait, or get out of the way

Mark Twain once quipped that God, for practice, first made idiots. Then he made school boards.

In the current issue of The Atlantic (see here), Mark Miller, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, uses Twain to illustrate that America's 15,000 local school boards (more than 600 of which are in Ohio) are a huge roadblock to education reform and that they have to be replaced by a more centralized state or even national system of school governance. Consider this in light of Governor Strickland's proposal to appoint a director of education to usurp the powers of the State Board of Education.

Miller compares the mediocre results in U.S. classrooms with those in other nations. A 2003 assessment by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (see here) found that even though America spent more on education than nearly every other nation, out of 29 developed countries examined we ranked 15th in reading, 18th in science, and 24th in math.

Reconsidering these numbers five years later should give pause to those who beat their breasts with the recent Education Week study that gives Ohio's overall efforts a "B" in comparing our schools with those in the other 49 states. While the state and the nation have some very fine schools, collectively we are just not nearly good enough. We haven't been even adequate for a very long time. In fact, 25 years after the report A Nation at Risk exposed serious weaknesses in American education, we are still mediocre at best and we aren't going to get much better, Miller argues, until local school boards are swept out of the way.

In the United States, Miller argues, local school boards, who maintain 15,000 separate curriculums, have kept education from attracting R&D dollars. Worse, local boards of education too often turn over control of many school districts to teacher unions though collective bargaining agreements that can block administrators' attempts to promote new teaching methods or get rid of ineffective teaching methods and teachers.

While, Miller admits, there is little chance of local school boards being eliminated, perhaps their roles can, at least, be minimized. In fact, consolidation might be a good place to start. Let's start in Ohio. We once had more than 2,000 school boards and now we have about 600. One school board per county-88-might be a good target.

More By Author

January 16, 2009
February 17, 2009