An Interview with Michael Petrilli: Are Local School Boards Still Necessary?

Michael F. Shaughnessy – I’m not sure how well equipped they are, but data from a recent NSBA-Fordham study showed that most school board members don’t place as high a value on test scores as you might think (or as reformers might wish).

Michael F. Shaughnessy
Eastern New Mexico University
Portales, New Mexico

1)      Mike, you recently hosted a panel about local school boards- What brought this about?

The topic of education governance is becoming a major strand of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s work. That’s because we see so many promising reforms crash upon its shores. Want to equalize funding? Expand school choice? Encourage online learning? Our current governance system—and especially our tradition of “local control”—makes all of this very difficult. We are launching a new three-year initiative, in partnership with the Center for American Progress, to put the issue of governance in the center of the education reform conversation. This panel was one of our first efforts on that front.

2)      Who attended this event and how well was it received?

We had close to fifty people in attendance and another 100+ watching on the web. Though this topic might sound boring, people seem to understand how critical it is.

3)      What do you think were some of the main points made?

Several folks have written up the main points from the event; see here and here. In my view, there were a couple of big issues. First, how can we keep school boards from getting captured by the employees that work in the system? Gene Maeroff, former New York Times reporter and now president of the school board of a mid-sized New Jersey district, just this week had to fend off a challenge from a slate of union organizers. (He succeeded.) He explained how important it is to have independent board members who can push back against the demands of the teachers (and other employees). Anne Bryant of the National School Boards Association expressed dismay at unions taking control of boards. Second, how “local” is too “local”? Also on the panel was Chris Barclay, president of the Montgomery County, Maryland school board. His board oversees a system with close to 150,000 students; Maeroff’s board oversees a district with 15,000 students. Many boards oversee systems with 1,500 students. What are the pros and cons of big county-wide systems versus tiny rural or municipal ones?

4)      Let’s take some drastic examples- just for discussion- Alaska and Hawaii—do you think each and every school system in Alaska needs a school board-or would a state school board or perhaps a county school board do just as well?

I don’t know much about education in Alaska, but there’s little doubt to me that tiny districts will always struggle to have the capacity to develop curriculum, train teachers, and intervene in failing schools. Some scale is necessary to do these things well.

5)      In terms of record keeping, managing money, advising on curriculum- how adept are school boards at performing these functions?

The consensus from the panel was that these lay boards struggle to keep up with the demands of overseeing all of the technical aspects of school systems. But I believe they can do it as long as they stick to policy and oversight and don’t try to micromanage.

6)      Standardized test scores- how well equipped are most local school board members to peruse these test results?

I’m not sure how well equipped they are, but data from a recent NSBA-Fordham study showed that most school board members don’t place as high a value on test scores as you might think (or as reformers might wish).

7)      How involved are school board in the hiring and firing of personnel, and what was the consensus regarding THIS issue?

In smaller districts they are VERY involved, approving every hire and promotion. Which, the panel concluded, provides too much opportunity for nepotism and cronyism.

8)      What were some of the main issues on the table regarding the future?

Not only whether elected school boards have a future (versus appointed boards or mayoral control), but whether we should be rethinking “local control” writ large. The best systems in the world have clear national expectations and a lot of school-level autonomy. Should we have the same—except with strong state-level control paired with charter-like authority at the school level? And should we try to diminish the role of districts (and unions) as middle managers? Sounds pretty good to me!

9)      What have I neglected to ask?

Where can your viewers watch the event online! It’s available here:


  1. Doug

    Every political and ideological group starts to believe that political power must be moved to the level (centralize or decentralize) in which they feel stronger. Conservatives believe in states rights primarily because they to not want conservative states dictated to by liberal central government types. Now we see conservatives trying to centralize control because they see local boards as “union dominated” (read too liberal). National standards, same thing. Some conservative believe national standrds must be set, the problem is that others want local (READ CONSERVATIVE) control.

    In fact, many are worried that natioal standards and testing shows that liberal (union) states are well above OECD levels while conservative (right-to-work) states are well below OECD standards.

  2. Concerned Teacher

    I am appalled at this notion. Our public schools are operated with tax $$. Citizens in every community are invited to vote for their school board members who are tasked with overseeing their public schools. This is democracy at work. A continuum of voices should be heard on a school board, and citizens such as you and myself should be welcome to stand up and express our views. Again, this is democracy at work.

    Democracy, or what is truly representative democracy, is messy and changes are not brought about as quickly as in an authoritarian organization. I am not convinced changes should be made quickly, though I am convinced that the better decisions are made when there is broad input and informed discussion.

    The model many “reformers” are pushing today eliminates the democratic input from our public schools in favor of mayoral control which amounts to the mayor appointing the CEO (no longer titled the superintendent) and the school board. Then the whole shebang operates on tax $$ without granting the taxpayers any meaningful input or control over the process. This is undemocratic and unAmerican.

    On the issue of teachers, I find the comments offensive. The only folks who are in daily contact with students are teachers. Finland maintains top scores on international measures of student achievement. This country has moved in a direction that is 180 degrees from that in which we are moving.

    1. Has eliminated standardized testing
    2. Has written minimalist course standards
    3. Actively recruits and trains the best candidates for teaching positions
    4. Requires a bachelor’s degree to train to become a teacher
    5. Pays teachers relatively high wages, which encourages the brightest folks to enter the profession
    6. Trusts and respects teachers to DO their jobs by permitting them breadth and leeway in designing their curriculum
    7. Has a shorter school day than the U.S.
    8. About 98% of their teaching force is unionized

    Every single reform Finland implemented has elevated the profession of teaching, empowering teachers. This has paid off in test scores, which are not a major issue in Finland, or they would be conducting annual standardized testing, too.

    In the U.S. the ugly rhetoric about teachers, the efforts to strip teachers of collective bargaining rights, discussions on how to limit the influence of teachers on school boards… I agree with Angela Beely, who is “mad as hell,” this rhetoric is all a red herring. Investment bankers have had their eye on the trillions of $$ tied up in our public schools for over decade (per at least one white paper published in the late 90s by one of the leading investment banks) and teachers’ unions are the major obstacle to Wall Street getting access to these monies.

    Fellow citizens and tax payers, whom do you want running your school district: Goldman Sachs or your elected school board?

    Raising the ire of Americans toward school teachers and school boards takes our attention off of the corporate plundering and pillaging of America that is destroying the middle class. We need to wake up and defend our representative democracy to push back against those who would run our nation’s institutions on an authoritarian model. And, by the way, any interest group in any situation can maneuver disproportionate control over a board. This is what appointing boards is all about.

  3. Charles Hoff

    As a former school board member I also share a concern about their ability to bring high quality education to our children.

    I find most board members I have met, and this is a large number, unfamiliar with much of what is happening in education. They seem to be far more concerned about bricks and athletics than the test scores or offerings.

    I also do college admissions work and find that many of the decisions, or lack thereof, of school boards cause some serious handicaps for their students.

    When I ask school board members the following two questions I hardly ever get answers that I would hope for.

    1. What school system has features that you feel you should adopt in your district?

    2. What are your sources of information on education outside of the board communications?

    If your board members don’t have good answers to these questions I doubt that significant improvement can take place.

    Depending upon your Superintendent for your information is putting management practices in reverse.

  4. G Mayers at 3rseduc

    I see nothing wrong with this. To clarify, I am all for local control of schools. What does DC know about Katie and Jose in East Los Angeles, their struggles in their local school? NOTHING. The local school board, at least, has some clue and can be the engine of change for that school and neighborhood. And test scores…yes they are a piece of the puzzle that makes the picture of the school or individual student, but they are not even the all important edge or corner pieces but rather some piece near the edge, a fuzzy background piece.
    That being said there are some bad school boards. Many are elected as favors or for political or selfish gain. Board members should not be compensated and should truly be elected for the good of the school. I do have to praise my school board- they do not get paid, and they are very involved. They come in and observe the schools, students, teachers. They attend many conferences and share their ideas. They are very informed on the goings-on of the schools. They are very hands on and are not in their position for political or selfish gain.
    Visit my blog if you like my ideas, that is if my blog shows in my post :)

  5. Concerned Teacher

    There are “bad apples” everywhere. When has that been a reason to condemn a system? We could dispense with elected school boards, go to appointed CEOs for school districts, with appointed boards, and STILL get bad apples. Indeed, that very thing happens. Mayor-appointed CEOs have been “run out” of school districts more than once, in a manner of speaking.

    I will always elect local control, local input and the democratic process over appointment by autocrats. Remember, it is the citizens who vote people in and out.

  6. Ayn Marie Samuelson

    Mr. Petrilli advocates “strong state-level control paired with charter-like authority at the school level.” Instead, why not promote state guidance for community-based schools through locally-based state informational centers that guide schools and ensure funding follows each child to a school that will serve his or her specific educational needs? Elected community school boards would be an integral part of their community, and you can believe they will be held far more accountable than elected boards of large districts – who often lose themselves and their constituents’ needs to superintendent or staff influence.
    The wholesome concept of educating each child and encouraging democratic participation is the ideal we can aspire to. Do we want corporate-run charter schools in our communities or online teaching our students; or would we rather have actual community-based schools where parents, communities and professional educators are encouraged to take their rightful place in decision-making responsibility?
    For too long, the political-bureaucratic education system of government and well-funded elites have held the spotlight telling taxpayers and parents that they are the experts in education. But our students are in trouble, as they struggle even in the basics. We need to transform our thinking and bravely step up to assume our rightful place in helping ensure that our children are well-educated to succeed. Ayn is co-author of Exposing the Public Education System.

  7. Beatrice Davis Fowler

    As a former school board member I have observed the following:
    Too often, those who decide to run for election to the school board attend their first meeting only after they have declared candidacy. They have spent little time learning the issues and are generally uninformed about their role to advocate for the public and the students. They are naïve, inexperienced and therefore welcome the superintendent when he takes them under his wing.

    School boards too often blindly follow the superintendents and staff recommendations. They do so without proper inquiry because they don’t want to give the appearance of not cooperating as a team or asking foolish questions. What board members know or learn is what superintendents want them to learn and know.

    The education system’s political bureaucracy is highly organized as per the National School Board Assoc, with its subgroups in each state. The Florida School Board Association composed of sixty-seven school boards conducts regular seminars indoctrinating new board members. Team building is stressed and board members are pressured to present a united front with superintendent and staff.. Each new board member is encouraged to complete a course of study to become formally recognized as board certified. Several private training sessions with a facilitator help to effectively educate and indoctrinate board member to speak in one voice as a team

    Florida school boards are costly adjuncts that accomplish little to benefit the education process. These observations are the result of seven years attending Brevard County school board meetings as a concerned citizen, followed by eight years elected to the Brevard County School board.

    Beatrice Davis Fowler is the co-author of Exposing the Public Education System, available at Amazon.

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May 1st, 2011

Michael F. Shaughnessy Senior Columnist

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