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: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PGtqR_T2xBM.
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