Dickinson College Homepage Dickinson Magazine This issue of the Dickinson Magazine was mailed on Monday, April 4, 2005
From This Issue
Volume 82 • Number 4
Spring 2005

Building Smarter Boards
Education reform could be enhanced by tending to citizen
By David Kranz
Mark Twain, as he did on almost everything, had the last word on school boards: “In the first place, God made idiots. That was for practice. Then he made school boards.”

Indeed, just last November the Dover Area School Board, less than 50 miles from Dickinson, decided to require that its ninth-grade science curriculum include an exploration of the untested pseudo-scientific concept of “intelligent design” as an alternative to the widely held and oft-validated Darwinian theory of evolution. However, since intelligent design, unlike evolutionary theory, is not capable of experimental validation, several parents, the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (led by Barry Lynn ’70, profiled on page 28), sued the district, alleging that the requirement was covert religious indoctrination. (A more intelligent ploy would have inserted the theory into the social-studies curriculum, but the Dover board wasn’t up to it.)

Meanwhile, on the national scene, Chester E. Finn Jr., former assistant secretary of education in the Reagan administration and conservative gadfly on educational issues for the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and the Hoover Institution, has argued for the abolition of all school boards, calling them at a Harvard forum in 2003 “worse than a dinosaur” and “an educational sinkhole.” Because the states already have taken over the lion’s share of financial matters—and, with the recent No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law, academic accountability as well—Finn and Lisa G. Keegan assert, in a recent edition of the journal Education Next, that school boards are obsolete.

In Finn’s view, elected school boards, established a century ago as a refuge from politics and patronage, now are filled by would-be pols, teacher-union reps and single-issue advocates who do more harm than good by their ignorance of education and overall resistance to significant reform. Finn and Keegan look with glassy eyes toward a time when students, like consumers, will have a “financial backpack” with which to pick “independently operated and competing education-delivery organizations” of their choice based on state-testing criteria. The arrival of this educational utopia, say Finn and Keegan, unfortunately is retarded by teacher unions, school boards and state school-board associations.

As if on cue, the National School Board Association (NSBA) Web site includes two broadsides defending the status quo. The NSBA answered yes to two self-posed questions—”Are school boards necessary?” “Should the present governance structure remain in place?”—offering five reasons why school boards “should be the decision maker in today’s schools.” Boards are devoted only to education (as opposed to other political institutions), are advocates of the community, set and measure educational standards, are accountable for performance by election, and are the taxpayers’ watchdogs.

Both sides in this debate present some truth and something less than truth. On one hand, as Finn suggests, boards sometimes have been politicized, but they are still largely stocked with citizen amateurs, not political hopefuls, union lackeys and ideologues. Although these amateurs are educated by state school-board associations and local experience about issues of law, governance and finance, Finn is right that most school directors know little about how education works.

Ultimately, lacking both expertise and, given the voluntary and unpaid nature of board service, the time and incentive to develop it, board members are at the mercy of state law and the opinions of their superintendents and central office staff. In addition, the unwieldy size of most boards (usually seven to nine members) diminishes the chances for significant change; few have time for the persuasive discussion needed to build a majority.

Thus, despite (and partly because of) its genuine democratic virtues, the school board is a neutered institution. Yet abolition, as Finn suggests, brings with it great risks which could be worse than the status quo. My solution? I think that national and state governments should reform school boards by making them smarter, more efficient, more powerful and more open to educational improvements while keeping their democratic foundation.

How? First, reduce the size of boards to three or five members depending on the size of the district. This streamlines the board, decreasing the time and effort needed to educate and build a majority while not giving up local democratic control. Second, pay school-board members for their service, enough to find the time to investigate educational issues seriously and to feel responsible for the district’s academic achievement.

This new cadre of citizen experts, as opposed to today’s amateurs, should be more persuasive with politicians who know little about education yet control it by law and more effective when interacting with the knowledgeable but inertial educational establishment at state departments of education and district central offices, thereby discovering new and practical ways to increase educational achievement. Moreover, with money on the line, strong board candidates will more likely emerge, and real debates over educational policy might occur, perhaps increasing community involvement in education.

My third recommendation would be to alter state law to reduce the size and scope of the state’s educational bureaucracy by putting more power for changing academic and financial policy in the hands of local school boards.

Smaller, smarter boards may adapt reforms to their districts more effectively than the one-size-fits-all approach of legislatures and departments of education without resorting to the risky, chaotic, privatized consumerist model fantasized by Finn. Whatever the merits of my suggestions, I believe that improving educational leadership at the local level, while hardly a sine qua non, should be part of the effort to reform the public schools.

David Kranz, a professor of English at Dickinson since 1979, has been a member of the Carlisle Area School Board, which he describes as “a good board in an excellent school district,” for nine years.

 


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