As health and safety concerns recede, districts are under pressure to provide fewer days and hours of student-teacher contact than before the pandemic.
Elected Boards: Can’t Live With Them, Can’t Live Without Them
Governance reforms – those that open public education to innovation, new providers, competition, and family choice – often start with suspension of normal local politics, via mayoral or state takeovers that bypass the elected local school board.
This trend would make Thomas Jefferson happy. Noting that any governance arrangement is subject to what political scientists call capture – domination by particular interests – Jefferson recommended a revolution every 20 years. Getting rid of an elected board is certainly revolutionary.
That’s how the portfolio-style reforms in New Orleans and New York City got started. Academic and financial crises strengthened state and city governance and weakened those who traditionally block governance reforms: school board members, unions, and privileged parents.
But that doesn’t mean the voters can be kept on the sidelines indefinitely. Jefferson’s analysis applies to any governance arrangement, not just to elected ones. And, there is reason to doubt that appointed boards can last even 20 years.
Appointees to board and executive positions can be overly influenced by provider groups or political machines. Mayors, seen in some places as the bulwarks of big-city education reform, can lose their seats and be replaced by people who want to put all the old arrangements back. And taxpayers sometimes question the legitimacy of appointees to positions that they previously had a say in filling.
In America, vital public arrangements ultimately need voter approval. Even the Supreme Court, Federal Reserve, and Armed Services, all of which need some insulation from voter passions, are ultimately affected by the results of Congressional and Presidential elections. They might run amok, but only for so long.
In K-12 education, the most stable appointive arrangements, like the Cleveland mayor’s control of the schools, are ultimately sanctioned by elections. State legislators authorized the mayor’s takeover in 1998, but it had to be ratified five years later by popular vote.
Americans want to think their representatives owe them their jobs and must work to retain their confidence. Those of us who are designing and debating governance alternatives for public education must never forget that. We have to expect that appointive arrangements are for emergencies and that elected boards will be the norm.
The challenge facing governance reformers is to invent a form of elected governance that is insulated from domination by employees, privileged parents, contractors, or any other group. In future posts, Ashley Jochim, Robin Lake and I will discuss the idea of an elected but constitutionally constrained school board. That board would have important powers, but these would be so sharply defined and limited that interest groups would have little to gain from capturing it.
Use the Canopy project interactive data portal to search for innovative schools by region, level, focus, and more.
Three new policy memos provide recommendations to start a discussion about how state leaders can ensure these shifts lead to better teaching, learning, engagement, and well-being for students.