Want to fix the school board? Change the job, not the people

Guest Opinion: The key to a more effective school board. And how it could happen here.
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The current Seattle School Board. From left to right, Stephan Blanford, Sherry Carr, Sharon Peaslee, Sue Peters, Betty Patu, Marty McLaren and Harium Martin-Morris.

Guest Opinion: The key to a more effective school board. And how it could happen here.

Seattle education watchers are fond of bashing the school board, complaining when board members fight, intervene in administrative decisions and drive out superintendents.

Unfortunately, that’s par for the course in big cities. Just look at San Francisco and Los Angeles. LA has just pushed out a superintendent who raised student achievement steadily throughout his tenure. The local board has hired Ramon Cortines for the second time, lured out of several years’ retirement. Ray left San Francisco after struggling with a grandstanding school board, and left New York after being ground down by board and union politics.

One city after another tries to put better people in charge — recruiting better school board candidates, appointing rather than electing board members and adopting mayoral control. This can help for a while, but board self-discipline frays after the next election, or when one member starts intervening in personnel and instructional matters and others follow suit.

Mayoral takeovers sometimes work, but only for a while. As happened in New York, new elections can replace reformers with people who want to restore the old system and its politics.

After years of studying big-city reform efforts, I am convinced that the problem with school boards is the job, not the people. The expectation that a group of people from any background (or for that matter the Mayor) can avoid major blunders while making all the politically charged decisions necessary to run a big-city school system, is unrealistic.

Under current state law, school boards are in charge of everything: deciding how all the money will be spent, hiring and assigning educators to schools, choosing instructional practices and buying equipment, managing real estate and running a bus system. Even if they delegate some of those functions to administrators, the temptation to intervene when someone complains, or to do a favor for a supporter, can be irresistible. So can the inclination to keep the teachers union — whose members are the single largest voting bloc in school board elections — satisfied by negotiating favorable terms in the collective bargaining agreement.

These problems are realities of politics, not moral failings on the part of school board members. The answer is to change the job.

There is no moral or constitutional requirement for school boards to have such broad powers. Changes in state law could put school boards in charge of the things that really matter.

And what really matters is the schools.

Local boards could be limited to making meaningful decisions — sponsoring new schools for neighborhoods and groups that need them, offering schools to groups with good ideas, and closing schools where kids don’t learn. Their lives would no longer be made hellish by demands from every side and squabbles over personnel and instructional matters.  

In A Democratic Constitution for Public Education (University of Chicago Press, 2014), a new book coauthored by myself and Ashley E. Jochim, we propose that state laws be amended so that local boards have only two powers: to approve an annual slate of schools to operate in their locality, and to employ a CEO who will track school performance, identify children and neighborhoods whose needs are not being met and find school providers who can meet those needs. Individual schools, not the local board, would employ teachers, rent or buy facilities and technology, and decide how to deliver instruction. Families would choose schools and money would follow children to the schools they attend.

Under the new “constitutional” system, local boards would not have the power to operate schools, employ teachers or principals, set pay levels, or create and oversee big central bureaucracies. Individual schools would set salaries and decide how to allocate budgets between salaries, support services for students and families, and individualization of instruction via technology.

Schools would no longer face dustups (liked the current one over forced staff changes at Garfield) over which positions the central office decided to eliminate. Such decisions would rest in the hands of school leaders, who could set priorities and make trade-offs that worked for their schools.

Schools could become teacher or parent cooperatives or nonprofits (or join larger nonprofits like colleges and universities). They could buy help and services from anywhere they choose, and not be taxed to pay for a central bureaucracy. Schools’ relationships with the local board would be arms-length, limited to contracts, memoranda of understanding, charters, etc.

This could work in Seattle, a city with a strong teacher force, lots of higher education resources and thousands of college-educated people who could become great assets if schools had the freedom to hire them. It could reduce the constant struggles over attendance zones, and (as the central office size and functions were reduced along with those of the board) increase the amounts of money available for all schools. Enrollment-based funding would also allow schools in the South End, which regularly lose their best educators, to bid for and keep their good principals and teachers.

This system would allow school board members to focus on the big picture, the overall quality of schools in the city, and to take definitive actions on behalf of children most in need of help. As in so many areas of life, local boards could be more effective if they did less and kept their eye on the few things that really count.  


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