Friday, October 7, 2022

One More Misguided Call To End School Boards

At reformy publication Education  Next, Henry Smith calls for the elimination of school boards. Smith has been the mayor of a small town (Dover, NH), and an assistant secretary of education under Bill Clinton; currently he's an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Education. Once upon a time, he interned for a member of Boston City Council.

His takeaway from his experiences is that politicians can be self-aggrandizing and more interested in gaining political power than doing the right thing, and that school board members are often politicians, and therefor do many Naughty Things. And he rattles off some recent scandals, without even getting around to the hijacking of boards by the right-wing anti-public ed crowd. 

While the recent school board scandals and demagogues echo the old ones, such activities are just a few of the many reasons to call for the elimination of school boards in the 21st century.

So let's see how he makes his case. He offers four arguments.

First, technology. Parents can communicate directly with schools and staff. "Parents no longer need to rely on the board’s political capital with individual schools when they can learn about their children’s progress by speaking directly and daily to the system’s staff themselves." This has been true since the invention of the telephone, a pre-21st century invention. This point seems to rest on a misconception of school board's role. "Since school boards rarely use their political clout to connect parents to principals and teachers, they have made their job of constituent outreach and representation mostly obsolete." Was that ever a school board's job? Have teachers and administrators been surrounded by a mysterious barrier that only school board members could breach?

Second, Smith says, that school boards "tend to roll over for the expertise of the school administrators." So the complaint is that the board hires folks with educational expertise to run the school district and then... listens to them? "It often looks more like the school boards are managed by school administrators instead of the other way around." Well, yes. That's exactly what school administrators are hired to do. Is Smith also upset that members of Congress set policy for social security, but do not actually manage social security offices themselves? 

Third, "voters are long past showing much interest in engaging with school boards." He means as far as elections go. Nobody is voting in school board elections and so school board elections have "devolved into contests in which mostly just teachers and community rabble rousers participate." I don't even know what to do with this one--the average ballot, especially in an off year, is filled with offices for which few people vote, from county coroner to 5th Level Adjudicatory Judge of Appeals Court of 157th Subdistrict. What an interesting world it would be if we simply eliminated every office for which voting fell beneath a certain level. 

Fourth, Smith blames contract negotiation difficulties the fault of the board. 

Direct contract negotiations between the school administration and the teacher unions, without the machinations caused by the additional layer of school board politicians, would eliminate one layer of government and, thereby, accelerate those contract negotiations.

Oh, Honey. There are two problems here. The first is that there is zero reason to believe this is actually true. Second is that direct negotiations of this sort would risk poisoning the working relationship of teachers and their managers. Okay--three problems, and I'll get back to the third one in a second.

So how, in Smith's world, are school districts run?

[F]or parents who want to advocate for their children and the schools’ programs, Parent Teacher Associations offer numerous advantages over school boards. PTAs simply do a better job of giving parents political and social capital within the school system.

Have you noticed what's missing from all of Smith's grand ideas and complaints? Every taxpayer who is not a parent. In direct teacher-administration negotiation, nobody represents all the taxpayers who will foot the bill. PTAs do not include non-parent taxpayers. 

Smith also like mayoral control, citing big-city mayors Boston’s Michele Wu, Chicago’s Lori Lightfoot, New York’s Eric Adams, and DC’s Muriel Bowser as folks who "need no assistance from school board politicians" and it is true that mayors like Eric "Swagger My Way Through Massive Budget Cuts" Adams have provided excellent examples of politicians who don't accept input from much of anyone. 

Smith hates the politicking and grandstanding and the "political battlefield" that school boards represent, but he somehow imagines that "mayors, families, PTAs, and school systems, working together, can do a better job" on issues like children's test scores and resegregation problems. This imagines that mayors, families, PTAs and school systems will somehow not involve people who are interested in political maneuvering and self-aggrandizement or "extremist political exploitation," which is just a silly thing to imagine. Mayoral control in particular leaves schools at the mercy of one person's bad ideas, and appointed boards are at least as political as elected ones, if not more so.

Less silly, and perhaps more important, is that Smith's idea cuts a whole vast number of taxpayer stakeholders out of school governance, leaving a critical group paying taxes and having no say. I can't imagine that such a system wouldn't stir up some political battles of its own.

I get it. There isn't a teacher who has taught for more than a week who hasn't felt frustration and/or rage over their local school board and the whole business of being a trained professional who ultimately answers to a batch of elected amateurs.

But a democracy-ish system in which government is run by a bunch of elected amateurs is fundamental to our country's operation. It as, as the saying goes, the very worst system except for every other system. Nor is there any system that cannot be bent to politicized shenanigans if citizens simply stop paying attention and exercising due diligence. I get Smith's frustration, but his solution is no solution at all.

1 comment:

  1. Tend to agree, Peter. Either we live in a democratic society, or be bow down to (kings, the clergy, the oligarchs, or some other small fringe).
    Now, I could be wrong. Athenian society within a very short period gave up on democracy. They actually had to get 'cops' to round up people to sit in the assembly. People appear to be more prone to complain than they are to taking responsibility. Nevertheless, one alternative (royalty) appears less attractive, and turning schools over to profit-making corporations appears to be even worse.

    I only worked in public schools for half my teaching career, but I think the problems in those schools (and there weren't many) involved sketchy administrators, often trying to dupe the Board. Same thing happens in most private schools.

    Until recently, most people on the School Board were 'amateurs' who were interested in education. They can learn, and they offer a fresh perspective. Most of their 'business' involves financial issues, and most teachers don't want to even think about that.