Past Isn’t Prologue for School Boards

Originally published on the National Journal Education Experts Blog 

Thinking about the future role of school boards in public education leads quickly to this question: What governance structure best supports the nation’s evolving education aspirations?

American public education traces its origins to 1647, Gene Maeroff of Teachers College, Columbia University, writes in School Boards in America (2010). That year, the Massachusetts Bay Colony mandated that every town within its jurisdiction establish a public school. Committees sprang up to run the institutions. In the 1820s, the state of Massachusetts made the committees independent of local governments, establishing the model for the autonomous school districts that exist throughout the country today.

The U.S. Constitution left authority over education in the hands of the states under the Tenth Amendment, which reserved to them all powers not explicitly given to the federal government, and the states passed that authority on to local school boards, reflecting both the localistic tenor of American life and the nation’s skepticism of centralized authority. For more than a century, local boards were solely responsible for public education’s funding, standards, instruction, and results. At their height in the 1930s, during the heyday of small-town America, there were as many as 127,500 boards. Some sparsely populated states had more school board members than teachers.

But the direction of American education, and the place of the local school board in charting the course of the nation’s students, changed dramatically in the early 1980s, when the federally appointed National Commission on Excellence in Education and other reform voices argued that public education’s tradition of stressing low-level academics and vocational training for many students was no longer sufficient. The rise of the postindustrial economy—with its requirement for brains over brawn—and the nation’s recently forged commitment to racial equality required that the kind of rigorous academic curriculum traditionally reserved for the few now be taught to the many, they argued.

It was an epochal shift in public education’s mission, one that we’ve been struggling to achieve for three decades. But entrusting the task to local school boards, it became clear by the late 1980s, was not going to yield the academic results the nation needed. Since then, national and state leaders have increasingly imposed the new expectations directly, holding schools responsible for their students’ performance, introducing national standards, and devising uniform tests—each step further distancing the country from its long tradition of local control. In 2008, commentator Matt Miller aptly characterized the idea of relying on local school boards to meet today’s educational challenges: “It’s as if after Pearl Harbor, FDR had suggested we prepare for war through the uncoordinated efforts of thousands of small factories.”

With the nation’s pursuit of equality of educational opportunity far from fulfilled and with workers increasingly competing for jobs with their counterparts around the world, we need to define public education’s aspirations nationally rather than locally. That means a new and less influential role in education goal-setting and policymaking for today’s 13,600 remaining public school boards.

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