The Grass Isn’t Necessarily Greener

Consider the School Board
By Fawn Johnson

School board members were elected all over the country last week. Richmond, Va., Mayor Dwight Jones saw his son Derik elected to his city's board. Voters in Santa Clara County ousted nine of 26 board members.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post created a small flurry of conversation when it ran a story a few days before the election noting that only two of the eight school board members in Prince George's County, Maryland have college degrees. Does that matter? Tough to say. Personal commitment to a school system may matter more than a college diploma. But if you're in the business of educating kids, it probably doesn't hurt to have a solid education yourself.

It's difficult to consider these questions without understanding the role of school boards. According to a study conducted by American Enterprise Institute Education Policy Studies Director Rick Hess, a contributor to this blog, the amount of time board members spend on school business varies widely between large and small districts. Some board members work less than 15 hours a month, while others work more than 40 hours per month. In small districts, most board members receive no salary or a small stipend. In large districts, about half of board members are paid for their work but less than 8 percent earn more than $15,000 a year.

Some education experts are not fans of school boards. Thomas B. Fordham Institute President Chester Finn, another contributor to this blog, has called them "an anachronism and an outrage." National Journal's sister publication, The Atlanticpublished a feature in 2008 with the provocative title, "First, Kill All the School Boards." Others, including the National School Boards Association, say school boards are a critical connection between the community and the public school system and an essential component of democracy.

Do school boards matter? If so, how? What are examples of good school board activities? What education topics should school boards avoid? Do board members need basic qualifications like college degrees or other certificates? Should they be elected or appointed? How do the answers to these questions vary based on region or school district size?


The Grass Isn’t Necessarily Greener
By Kevin Welner

School boards are indeed one of the messy components of democracy. Like mayors, legislators and governors (and presidents), it’s easy to come up with cogent criticisms and many instances of failure. Yet we fool ourselves if we look at only one side of the ledger, pretending or suggesting that problems will somehow disappear if we just shifted governance responsibility to some other mechanism or entity.

Currently around the nation we see increased mayoral control (e.g., NYC, Boston and Chicago), increased private market control (e.g., New Orleans), and increased control from governors or their appointees (e.g., Michigan and Detroit) – but we don’t see any actual benefits of these different approaches.

Before advocating such a switch away from school board control, we should have at least four goals in mind:
1. Responsiveness to all stakeholder voices.
2. Responsiveness to local contexts and needs.
3. Professional knowledge and competence.
4. Integrity.

For each of these four goals, I see weaknesses in the system of electing school boards. They are probably strongest when it comes to #2, with a great deal of variation for the other three goals. But I also see weaknesses regarding all four in a system of mayoral control, etc. It’s hard not to think of the old Churchill quote: “democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”

There is, however, one thing that I think we all can agree about: There are few activities less interesting than sitting through a school board meeting.

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Fawn Johnson

Fawn Johnson is a correspondent for National Journal, covering a range of issues including immigration, transportation and education. Johnson is a long-time student of Washington policymaking, previously reporting for Dow Jones Newswires and the Wall Street Journal where she covered financial regulation and telecommunications. She is an alumnus of CongressDaily,...

Kevin G. Welner

NEPC director Kevin G. Welner is a professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder School of Education, specializing in policy and law. He and Alex Molnar founded NEPC in 2010. Welner has authored or edited 12 books and more than 100 research articles and book chapters concerning education policy and law. His...