Ownership and Local Coalitions…or Whence the School Board (Part II)

Continuing from where I left off, I read many articles these days about the impending demise of school boards. Uniformly, the authors lament the increasing amount of state and federal legislation that is imposing direction onto school districts through a systematic linking of funding to specific actions by boards and district administrations.  The federal Race-to-the Top competition and No Child Left Behind are only the most recent, highly public examples.

The history of local boards directing schools is long and deep and based on the time-honored American traditions of individual independence, freedom, and democracy. The system of governance for America’s schools is based on a fundamental belief that local residents know what they need in their schools and that they are the best judges in the balance between needs, standards, and taxation.

What this tradition implies is that local residents have ownership in their schools, that they take a direct and continuing interest in the decisions of their school district, and that they maintain a keen awareness of the near and long term issues that need to be considered in managing and sustaining a school system.

More than ever before, I certainly feel this ownership. I have to and I increasingly feel the pressure to act according to these ownership demands, but do you feel this ownership?  Do you maintain an awareness of the issues to the same degree that you monitor the interests of your kids, your family, your business?

Frankly, for most, I doubt it, and this is why the state and federal legislators are feeling pretty free to make demands on districts.  They know most of us don’t have the time to dedicate to deep research and that we can’t maintain the necessary focus, even if we hold it for a brief time. They know we parents are fickle — that our interests flit from topic to topic, helped perhaps by too much ad-driven media.

So, legislators have retained for themselves the resources needed to stay abreast of the issues, of new thinking, of expanded collaboration, and of the myriad other means to explore, develop, and direct school policy. It should come as no surprise, with the new information age firmly upon us providing a dizzying pace of transformation, that we are now seeing a massive shift toward centralization of school policy development.

Is this transition a bad thing?  Shouldn’t we not want our schools to supply a quality population of young people to our colleges and trades?  Should we not want our students to be competitive in the broadest and most well-defined markets possible?

Broader establishment of standards is trying to accomplish these goals of quality and competitiveness in the increasingly global marketplace of talent.  The historic demographic monopoly of skills is shifting from the US to a more global level of availability and while this shift is still some years away, pockets of skill have already shifted.  Intellectual talents that are the most portable or transferable are now available nearly everywhere on the planet and local districts simply do not have the power to transform practices on a scale large enough to be effective against this migration.

But just as certain skills cannot be globalized quickly if ever, loss of local control is not going to happen overnight nor is it a certainty.  Districts still have ways to maintain their relevance at the local level and there are many initiatives that districts can undertake to demonstrate that local control is an effective way to operate our schools.  I believe there may be two key ways to keep local control relevant during the ongoing transition.

  1. Districts that collaborate most closely with their neighboring and regional districts tie their initiatives more directly to the local population and economic interests and thus build in a level of resistance and support for local management.
  2. Districts that build a deep, sustained relationship with the local community outside of their schools, through business and residents, also tie their efforts more directly to the local population and economics.

These are collaborative and ownership efforts that cannot be easily replicated at the national level, and they are hard to do locally.  Indeed, I’m very proud of and support the efforts of our own district on these measures.  Fundamentally, though, large educational initiatives will increasingly originate at the federal and state coalition level.  One only needs to monitor the Common Core State Standards initiatives to see this happening.

I’ll note briefly that I don’t think this is an issue of political alignment. These ideas of centralization have progressed unheeded through lengthy terms by both political parties going back decades into the 60s. NCLB was just a step along the path. As long as there is a large slice of total tax pie being spent on education with the associated political benefit from managing those funds, this progression is likely to continue.

So how long will school boards last? Who knows? Probably quite a while, but unless there is a systemic problem uncovered with a centralized approach, or unless districts make themselves irreplaceable through strong local coalitions, the erosion of local control will continue.

A good friend on another district board is now running for state office. He will be a tremendous loss to his board. He’s also a fine person that any community should want as their representative, but I have to wonder whether the shift from local to state leadership roles is the wave of the future and whether board members are a disappearing breed.