The anachronism of school boards

local school board, especially the elected kind, is an anachronism and an
outrage. We can no longer pretend it’s working well or hide behind the mantra
of ‘local control of education.’ We need to steel ourselves to put this
dysfunctional arrangement out of its misery and move on to something that will
work for children.”

With that statement on the record, we’re doubly admiring of
Anne Bryant and her colleagues at the National School Boards Association (NSBA)
for welcoming us into their recent project—“School
Boards Circa 2010: Governance in the Accountability Era
”—a survey of roughly
900 school board members. We went into it willing to have our previous
impressions of local school boards overturned. For the most part, that hasn’t

Because we’re serious about America’s need for bold school
reform, we came away from the survey data dismayed that so many board members
appear hostile to some of the most urgently needed reforms—and accepting of timeworn
(and for the most part unsuccessful) tweaks to the current system. Substantial
numbers view charter schools, intra-district choice among schools, and
year-round calendars as “not at all important” to improving student learning.
They’re cool toward teachers entering classrooms from “nontraditional”
directions. Yet they’re warm-to-hot when asked about the value of such
primordial yet unreliable “reforms” as smaller classes and more professional
development. And they’re more agitated about school inputs—funding above
all—than about academic achievement.

Putting it bluntly, would public
education come closer to serving the country's needs in 2011 if it were
run by visionary, reform-driven leaders rather than by cautious,
community-based fiduciaries?


One must wonder whether this is because they’ve grown
acculturated to traditional educationist views of education—half of all board
members have served in their current districts for more than five years—or because
more than a quarter of them are current or former educators themselves. Could
it be because so many of them in large districts (more than one in three)
indicate that unions contribute to their campaigns and presumably expect something
in return? Or is it that they regard their role like members of corporate
boards of directors, chiefly concerned with the well-being of the organization
itself (particularly its revenue streams), rather than like education
policymakers, much less reformers?

There’s evidence in the NSBA data for all these
possibilities—and a good many more.

Even as we applaud school board members for their service,
much of it time-consuming and selfless, we cannot but wonder about some of
their core values and priorities for K-12 education.

Three examples:

• School board members tend to cite inadequate inputs as
the main barrier to improved school outcomes. Three quarters of them view
insufficient funding as a strong or total barrier to raising
achievement. That’s about twice as many as point to collective-bargaining
agreements—and more than three times as many as identify “community apathy” as
a major barrier. Yes, economic times are perilous, but stressed finances call
for exploring uncharted waters, not waiting for manna from the taxpayers.

• Board members also favor intangible outcomes. Asked to
rank education goals, three-fourths of the surveyed group say that “help[ing]
students fulfill their potential” or “prepar[ing] students for a satisfying and
productive life” is number one. Just 16 percent chose preparing students for
the workforce or for college. One wonders, in our globally competitive world,
how their sense of what’s important got so skewed. Do they really not put much
stock in the most tangible outcomes of schooling? Are they possibly hiding from
results-based accountability by selecting goals that cannot readily be

• School board members have only a vague awareness that
learning levels must rise. Though two-thirds concur that “the current state of
student achievement is unacceptable,” barely one-quarter “strongly agree” with
that statement. A whopping 87 percent agree or strongly agree that “defining
success only in terms of student achievement is narrow and short-sighted; we
need to emphasize the development of the whole child.” And a full one-third are
nervous about placing “unreasonable expectations for student achievement in our

These data also show that board members are conscientious
citizens who take the job seriously and work hard at it. They want to serve
their communities, and they want kids to have good lives. Demographically, they
comprise a fair cross section of middle-aged, upper-middle-class America.
They’re better educated than most of the population, and their household income
is greater than most. They’re moderate to conservative in their politics,
they’re professionals or businessmen/women in their careers, and they serve on
the board—they say—for altruistic, public-spirited motives, which is borne out
by the fact that just 36 percent have children in school in the district whose
board they’re on. (Of course, 70 percent are fifty or older.)

These well-meaning, solid citizens, however, do not
manifest great urgency about changing the education system for which they’re
responsible, certainly not in disruptive ways. Yes, they want it to do better.
But they also cite myriad obstacles to changing it, obstacles they find outside
themselves and their communities and thus obstacles that they, almost by
definition, are powerless to overcome. Moreover, they’re principally
concerned—the “board of directors” syndrome again—with the viability of the
school system as an institution, fiduciaries, one might say, of a public trust
rather than change agents on behalf of a compelling societal agenda.

This is not too surprising, considering that the “theory”
behind elected local school boards as a public-school governance system was to
induce selfless civic leaders to preside over and safeguard a valuable
community institution, keeping it out of politics and out of trouble while
solving whatever problems it encountered. The theory did not expect individuals
elected to these roles to function as innovators, much less as revolutionaries.

The question that needs to be
asked again, however, is whether American education in the twenty-first century
would be better served by a different arrangement, one more apt to tally the
considerable challenges facing communities, states, regions, and the nation as
a whole and then reshape key institutions to meet those challenges. Putting it bluntly,
would public education come closer to serving the country’s needs in 2011 if it
were run by visionary, reform-driven leaders rather than by cautious, community-based
fiduciaries? We’re inclined to think it would.

Chester E. Finn, Jr.
Chester E. Finn, Jr. is a Distinguished Senior Fellow and President Emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.