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Local school boards: Reflections of American democracy

By Reginald Felton

Most Americans place a high value on the basic principles on which our democratic society is based: “…of the people, by the people, and for the people…” Yet, when it comes to local school boards, some people believe that these principles should not apply.  Certainly, citizens in this country have the right to question the performance of their public school board members, whether elected or appointed.  That’s true American democracy.  But to attack local school boards as obsolete fails to recognize the core values of our American democratic society.   
 
State Role in Public Education
Clearly, states have a major role in providing a quality public education.  In fact, states have the legal obligation to provide a public elementary and secondary education to all of its citizens, since every state has chosen to accept this responsibility.  However, states also have long recognized and continue to support the need for local school district governance.  Even with provisions in federal and state laws for state-takeovers of local school districts, most states have been very reluctant to assume such responsibilities. 
 
The Local Debate
Most of the negative attacks on local school boards have evolved from public debates between local mayors or governing councils and local school boards over demands for increases to local school budgets, especially where local school boards do not have revenue-generating authority.  Beyond budgets and funding, however, mayors or councils have expressed little interest in policy-making and the daily governance of local schools.  For opponents of local school boards (or of public schools in general) to use such debates among public officials as the basis to advance their own beliefs in eliminating local school boards is misleading, if not dishonest.        
 
Individual and Dysfunctional Behavior
Americans must continue to guard against attacks on all local school boards based solely on the performance of individual local school boards or the behavior of individual school board members.  Our democratic principles grant citizens the rights to retain or reject local school board candidates as part of the election process.  As citizens, we should reflect on these democratic principles and exercise our rights and responsibilities to vote – accepting the premise that the majority wins.  For appointed school board members, although such appointees cannot be affirmed or rejected directly through public elections, procedures do exist that can result in the removal of appointed school board members.  Eliminating the entire local school board governance structure on the basis of disagreeable behavior on the part of individual local school board members is akin to throwing the baby out with the bath water.
   
Public Engagement and Support
The American public should acknowledge that in many communities, local public schools, as well as other public services, might have been neglected for decades.  In a democracy all the people must bear responsibility for this and share in any sanctions – not just the local school board.  It is crucial that local school boards continue to engage their communities in developing strategies to improve public schools and garner public support from committed citizens to make substantive and measurable improvements to the schools. Inadequate funding and facilities for public schools should not be used as the basis for eliminating the local school board, particularly when those school boards are not authorized to generate revenue. 
 
Shared Accountability
The American public must also acknowledge that the increased focus on accountability for the academic performance of our schools and school districts has come not just from the federal government, but also from state and local governments.  As a result of these new accountability requirements, and the realization of the tremendous challenges now before all communities, there is also tendency to find fault and blame.  In strategically addressing improvements in our public schools, the American people should guard against making the erroneous assumption that eliminating local school boards will somehow remedy problems created by decades of neglect.  There is no evidence to even suggest that the elimination of local school boards improve academic results.   
 
Competency and Leadership
There are some who believe that local school boards cannot exist effectively in urban or high-poverty communities, and that, conversely, effective local school boards can exist successfully only among more affluent, well-educated, or suburban areas.  The premise offered by some is that the talents and skills necessary to effectively perform the duties and responsibilities of local school boards are not as readily available in some communities as others.  One should ask pointedly: Are these opponents of local school boards suggesting that democracy should only exist for the wealthy?  While the challenges in high-poverty communities often are greater, all communities have citizens with the necessary skills and professional commitment to carry out the duties and responsibilities of local school boards. 
 
Public School Alternatives and Choice
Additionally, in recent years local communities have witnessed the expansion of more alternatives in the delivery of public education, including public charter schools, alternative schools for more challenged students academically, public school choice, and virtual schools.  While some local communities welcome broader choices in the delivery of public education, the success of these programs and systems will continue to require an effective governance structure that directly reflects the values and interests of the local citizens and remains accountable to them.  Proponents of broad public school choices should not use these changes in the delivery of public education as the basis to eliminate local school boards.  
 
Local School Funding
Finally, the reality is that as long as the federal government’s contribution to the costs of providing public education remains at only 7 percent, and state contributions to local public schools continue to be far less than the remaining 93 percent, local communities through local school boards will continue to have a strong role to play.   Community surveys across the nation continue to identify the local school board as the primary choice for local school governance, as well as for determining how educational programs are delivered, how facilities are constructed and managed, how the instructional, administrative, and support staffs are recruited, retained, and developed, and, in addressing other education goals, objectives and priorities based on the culture, values, and commitment of the local community. 
 
Final Words
Perhaps rather than to attack local school boards, such efforts should be directed at raising the level of engagement of all local residents regarding public school challenges.  After all, democracy demands the full participation of its citizens.  When that participation declines, all of our democratic principles become challenged – not just local school boards.  

 


 

Reginal Felton is an NSBA lobbyist and former local school board member.

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