May 25, 2011

How To Reform School Boards

Gene I. Maeroff's new book is "School Boards in America: A Flawed Exercise in Democracy." He is a senior fellow at Teachers College, Columbia University, and president of the school board in Edison, New Jersey.
School boards are the Rodney Dangerfields of education—garnering little respect and serving as objects of derision.
Granted, while some of those who serve on school boards have their deficiencies, in general they tend to be civic-minded do-gooders who, unlike their neighbors, are willing to give up their free time and privacy for an often unpaid position that likely involves more hassle than acclaim. And some school boards are highly functional.
Certainly, there are ways to make school boards more efficient and more effective. Those who promote reforms in elementary and secondary education are remiss if they don't take note of the role of school boards, however insignificant those entities may seem. The states that empower local school boards with governance responsibilities and educational change may not succeed unless members of boards see the need for change and are willing to take bold steps to institute reforms.
But many obstacles stand in the way of improving school boards. After serving as president of a school board, analyzing educational trends for decades, and spending two and a half years researching and writing a newly-published book on the subject I conclude that these are at least four major areas to address when it comes to school board reform:
1. Qualifications of members
School board members in America range from those with doctorates to those that have not even completed high school. Almost all come onto school boards (more than 90 percent of them through elections; the rest are appointed) with little or no preparation for the specific tasks that await them. Some outstanding people serve on school boards and some have no business on these boards, given their temperament and ignorance.
If more school boards were appointed, and consideration were given only to candidates who have been interviewed and vetted by panels of leading citizens who do not represent special interest groups, this could make for better boards. Moreover, the criteria for consideration might go beyond the basics—citizenship and residence.
2. The elective process
Elections are certain to predominate even if more school districts shifted to appointed boards. The democratic process, though, sometimes contains the seeds of its own undoing. It is too easy for special interest groups to thrive in school board elections. Groups like teachers' unions that believe they can gain from the election of particular candidates or individuals who want to promote a single agenda—say, sharply reducing expenditures—sometimes figure prominently in board elections.
It would be undemocratic and illegal to bar such involvement. But more could be done to publicize which groups and individuals spend money and donate time for particular candidates. Furthermore, debates aired on local TV channels could enable more people to become familiar with candidates and their stance on particular issues.
3. The preparation and training of members
Governance is the main job of school boards. Most people, however well informed, do not know the ins and outs of the governance process and are unfamiliar with the legal responsibilities of board members. And because they are governing school systems, members of these boards should also be more conversant than the average citizen about issues involving teaching and learning.
Some states and some organizations such as the Center for Reform of School Systems run programs to deepen the knowledge of board members about educational issues and to facilitate their governance skills. These efforts should be expanded and reach beyond the once-a-year seminar.

4. Conduct by school members
Finally, nepotism should be a concern when it comes to school boards. All too often a member may intercede to gain special treatment for a relative. Ethics regulations have been promulgated in many locales, and this has crimped but hardly eliminated the practice.
Concern about the conduct of school board members and their role in personnel decisions should go well beyond nepotism, though. Cronyism, favoritism, and patronage may not involve relatives, but they do lead to appointments and promotions that undermine the meritocracy and saddle school systems with employees who may not be the best qualified for their jobs—from security guards to principals.

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