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Posted at 8:00 PM ET, 01/16/2011

Who needs school boards?

By Jay Mathews

The Washington area has many school districts. Each district has a school board, more or less. (The District’s board is going through a neutered phase.) Each school board has many members. Each member is being reminded this month, as meetings resume after the holidays, that their job is to endure boredom and verbal blows from citizens.

They are also chided by the school superintendents they hire, though usually not to their faces. Superintendents save their criticisms for off-the-record conversations with journalists like me, toward the end of a nice lunch. They feel better questioning the values and habits of the elected amateurs who could fire them immediately, if they wished.

The 21st century so far has not been good to school boards. Their political squabbles are often blamed for disorganized schools and low student achievement. In several cities, including the District, boards have been pushed aside in favor of mayoral control. The mayors in turn have stumbled, but few voters seem to want the school boards back in charge.

Like dinosaurs, school boards are dying off fast. There were more than 80,000 in 1950. Now there are less than 14,000. One leading critic, former IBM chief executive Louis V. Gerstner Jr., said we don’t need more than 70---one for each state and one for each of the 20 largest districts.

But Teachers College, Columbia University, senior fellow Gene I. Maeroff, after combing through the data for and against this battered and bleeding symbol of local democracy, has concluded “there is scant evidence that school systems would be better served if school boards did not exist.”

To write his insightful new book “School Boards in America: A Flawed Exercise in Democracy,” Maeroff, a former New York Times reporter, made the sacrifice of getting himself elected to the school board in Edison, N.J. He is still there, enduring soporific meetings and nasty emails, convinced that despite its faults the school board as an American institution will survive.

What saves boards politically in most communities is that only a few activists pay attention to them. The vast majority of taxpayers don’t even bother to vote for, or against, their members. I remember a Los Angeles school board member telling me I should not bother writing about a resolution passed by the teacher’s union because only 30 percent of its members voted on it. She had repressed the fact that less than 20 percent of registered voters had marked her name on their ballots.

Still, Maeroff says, the sort of people who want to take away school board powers have their own flaws. He approvingly cites a consultant saying superintendents “move from place to place and rarely commit themselves to a long-term vision, mayors cannot maintain a focus on education, and leadership from business is uneven and crisis-driven.”

Washington area voters have been lucky in the selection of some school boards, even though few know it. The school board in Arlington County created the conditions for Wakefield High School to become one of the most effective high schools in the country despite its mostly low-income student body. The board in Fairfax County smashed the system that denied average students a chance to take challenging high school courses. The board in Montgomery County created a much admired system for both helping weak teachers, and jettisoning them if they didn’t improve.

Maeroff predicts the number of school boards will continue to decline. Rural boards that have no schools, and just send kids off to other districts, won’t survive much longer. Those boards that are left, he suggests, might do better if they were given fewer responsibilities. Don’t take the job of improving learning away from them, as the District has done, but let county officials handle boring stuff like maintenance and transportation.

If that happens, voters are not likely to notice, except for the few who go to school board meetings, and make members like Maeroff some nights wish they had never run.

Read Jay's blog every day, and follow all of The Post's Education coverage on Twitter, Facebook and our Education Web page.

By Jay Mathews  | January 16, 2011; 8:00 PM ET
Categories:  Metro Monday  | Tags:  Gene I. Maeroff, School Boards in America: A Flawed Exercise in Democracy,, few people vote for school board members, school boards, some school boards have no schools  
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My attitude, having watched the San Francisco School Board for many years, was nicely summed up by Mark Twain. Twain said:
"In the first place, God made idiots. That was for practice. Then he made school boards."

Posted by: patrickmattimore1 | January 16, 2011 10:37 PM | Report abuse

The role of school board member is changing in the 21st century. In this era of Federal and State mandates and accountability, school board members can no longer sit back and oversee the the Superintendent and district finances. School board members need to take an active role in undertanding how to improve teaching and learning outcomes in the classroom that ultimately result in closing the achievement gap.

Posted by: mikemcmahon1 | January 17, 2011 12:11 AM | Report abuse

School boards serve a purpose:
funding trips to Disney World and starting political careers (Sue V. Mills, Marcy Canavan, Marilyn Bland, etc)

Posted by: edlharris | January 17, 2011 12:59 AM | Report abuse

School boards simply are control bodies, not advisories. How many members are out in the community to the voters? How many are actually in the school? Here in Jacksonville Florida the board is required to approve a firing, but not involved in hiring. Huh?!?!?!

“there is scant evidence that school systems would be better served if school boards did not exist.”

So this means the board doesn't improve the system and it would remain the same with/without this body of wannabe politicians or overzealous PTA/PTO members? I submit it would improve if they were abolished. Tax payouts would be less.

Posted by: jbeeler | January 17, 2011 6:50 AM | Report abuse

"Superintendents save their criticisms for off-the-record conversations with journalists like me, toward the end of a nice lunch."

Jay, Are you having lunch with Superintendent Jerry Weast?
Who is paying for these lunches?
Let's have some transparency in your relationship with the MCPS Superintendent.

Most reporters covering Montgomery County Public Schools can't even get a phone call returned on stories.
But you are having lunch with Superintendents?
What would your reporting be like if Superintendents didn't return your calls?

Posted by: jzsartucci | January 17, 2011 7:24 AM | Report abuse

"The board in Montgomery County created a much admired system for both helping weak teachers, and jettisoning them if they didn’t improve."

Really, Jay? The school board created this system? When? Point to the meeting minutes where the MCPS Board of Education had a discussion and actually went over the details of something and took votes to craft a final piece.

The MCPS Board of Education has been a rubber stamp under Superintendent Weast even to the point of not signing off on MAJOR PROCUREMENT CONTRACTS any more! MCPS staff now is free to sign for multi-million dollar leases without Board approval.

Did the MCPS Board of Education "craft" the super-cool "sell our curriculum to Pearson" deal? No. That was brought to them at the last minute and they had an overnight to read and understand the contract. They approved it the next day without even knowing what was involved. That's how a rubber stamp works.

Posted by: jzsartucci | January 17, 2011 7:34 AM | Report abuse

Starting political careers does seem to be a major point for school boards.

In my hometown they have a seperate taxing authority and do make decisions that impact people.

Posted by: RedBird27 | January 17, 2011 9:05 AM | Report abuse

For jzsartucci---Superintendent Weast and I have spoken many times, but we have never had lunch together that I can recall, except for a couple of big group lunches at the Post, paid for by the Post.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | January 17, 2011 9:09 AM | Report abuse

As "one of the few activists" that pays attention to the FCPS school board, I would like to note that it is indeed unacceptable for SB members to "endure boredom and verbal blows from citizens." It is equally unacceptable for their constituents to endure the same from some of the board members, as is the case now. The public needs to ensure that there are fewer "elected amateurs" who are not bored by the crucial issues before them and who can manage a billion dollar-plus budget (more than 50% of the county budget). Fairfax SB elections are this year; Fairfax citizens: it's your tax dollars and your school board.

Posted by: FairfaxStation2489 | January 17, 2011 10:23 AM | Report abuse

mikemcmahon1 | January 17, 2011 12:11 AM


Posted by: FairfaxStation2489 | January 17, 2011 10:28 AM | Report abuse

FX County school board members have more spending authority that the Board of Supervisors...they receive 53% of Fx taxes. There is no real audit, the budget documents are confusing even for someone with a business background, and they make boundary decision based on self-interest. Bradsher shoved Clifton Elementary out of the way to make an opening for WSHS. Can anyone say 2011? Parents with kids in schools need to really ask, are my kids getting the best education that 2.3 billion dollars can buy.

Posted by: unhappyvoter | January 17, 2011 11:14 AM | Report abuse

An excellent point by FairfaxStation2489.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | January 17, 2011 12:26 PM | Report abuse

Be glad if you have a school board that does very little--in some areas, people run for the board specifically to get evolution out of the schools and religious (Christian) services in.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | January 17, 2011 1:00 PM | Report abuse

Hi Mr. Mathews,
In the interest of transparency, could you list the dates when you had lunch with Superintendent Weast, and the people that attended those luncheons?

Posted by: freestategal | January 17, 2011 2:26 PM | Report abuse

One board member falls asleep during meetings. Another berates the public for raising issues or concerns. The public that attends board meetings are both terrified to speak up or appalled by the lax oversight, or both.

Most of the seats on the board have turned over several times. The school administrators have far greater institutional knowledge and they use it to their advantage on any important decision. The school board has never had a real discussion on any topic of any importance. Mostly they argue about where to put the field house they can't afford to build.

Posted by: EduCrazy | January 18, 2011 8:06 AM | Report abuse

Herein lies the problem: "They are also chided by the school superintendents they hire, though usually not to their faces." Why isn't the school board having open, honest debates with their Superintendents? Don't our kids deserve an elected body that ACCOMPLISHES what they were elected to do? and not have ongoing UNPRODUCTIVE battles? You say that you have "big group lunches at the Post paid for by the Post" So that means that parents need to pay for big group lunches in order for superintendents to respond to them? What do parents need to do to get the Post to listen to them? Pay for a mass lunch? Maeroff nailed it when he said that only a few activists pay attention to the school board. People are incredibly busy these days and to ask them to keep up with all the issues with Congress, their President, their local Board of Supervisors, their delegates, their state senators - WHO HAS TIME TO WATCH THE SCHOOL BOARD? SO YOU HAVE MILLIONS OF UNINFORMED PEOPLE ELECTING THESE POLITICAL WANNABES WHO HAVE NO EXPERTISE, NO CONCERN AND NO CONSIDERATION FOR OUR KIDS AND MOST IMPORTANTLY, HAVE NO BUSINESS RUNNING FOR THE SCHOOL BOARD. THE PEOPLE THAT BUY THE MOST SIGNS OR GET PARTY ENDORSEMENTS WIN THE SCHOOL BOARD ELECTIONS - HOW SAD IS THAT? And you wonder why our kids aren't achieving?

Posted by: frustratedFCPSParent | January 18, 2011 8:32 AM | Report abuse

I don't think you can arbitrarily state that school boards are effective or not. I have seen some very effective, ethical SB members and I have seen the ugly.

If a school district has an excellent superintendent, the oversight by a SB isn't needed as much. Unfortunately, from my observations in Fairfax, the SB doesn't provide the checks and balances that are needed.

Mistakes are covered up, ineffective staff is protected and student achievement is fabricated by use of the VGLA. We win award after award given out by groups that we pay into and are meaningless and yet we issue a press release after each one.

The establishment is so focused on presenting an image of a near perfect school district that nobody looks under the hood of the car or kicks the proverbial tires. Maybe if kids had a union that was heavily funded they could "buy" themselves the same protections and be placed at the front of the line. Wishful thinking, I guess.

Union money drove Michelle Rhee from DC schools and the kids will most definitely suffer because of it.

It is a broken system that will require vigilant parents to regain control.

Posted by: takebackourschools | January 18, 2011 11:45 AM | Report abuse

It's not just the school board that is the anachronism here. It's the monopoly school districts that they run that need reconsideration. Do people really need these semi-representative bodies to prescribe how the children of a community will be educated -- where they will attend school, what they will learn, who will teach them, and in what precise manner? Given the results around us, how much evidence is there, really, that these people make better educational choices for children than their own parents could make? Yes, yes, a few parents would make poor educational choices for their children, just as some parents make poor choices in other areas of their lives. But look at all of the expensive, rigid, and often poor-performing systems that we have in place to keep parents from making "bad choices". Looking across the country, do we really think these state-sanctioned monopolies are doing such a terrific job? Can we not imagine a 21st Century system for educating our children that does not require such ponderous state control?

Posted by: k12reboot_com | January 18, 2011 12:23 PM | Report abuse

School boards are uninformed on my most educational issues; at least that is my experience as a teacher, hired or fired by them in rural Midwestern school districts.
Here in Missouri, the mantra oft chanted is that school boards help to ensure "local control," and implicit in that phrase is not having anything from the state or federal level forced down their throats or corrupting their kids.
You may recall a few months ago (it made national education news) about the Stockton, MO School Board, whose notoriety was earned in banning a book from being read by students and taught by an English teacher. Well, that is part and parcel of their function in my teaching experience.

Posted by: jay_thompson | January 18, 2011 1:19 PM | Report abuse

Jay said "Superintendent Weast and I have spoken many times"...

Wow. That beats almost all other reporters covering MCPS. Other reporters can't even get a call back from the massive MCPS Public Relations department.

Why do you think you have a special relationship with Superintendent Jerry Weast? What can other reporters in TV, radio, print and at student newspapers learn from you?

This follows the discussion of the limited information that the public has about school boards/systems. Those that do track the public education system rely on what they learn from reporters. What does it say about the public school system when the administrators won't even return phone calls?

Posted by: jzsartucci | January 18, 2011 2:31 PM | Report abuse

It is hinted at in the article, but not made explicit, that most of the reason there are fewer SBs is because there are far fewer school districts today than there were in 1950. It is not so much that there has been a movement to get rid of SBs, but there has been a tremendous amount of school district consolidation during the past 60 years. Unlike Maryland and Virginia where school districts are largely organized by counties, many states had hundreds of school districts centered on small towns, in which over time it proved unsustainable to support a local high school with shrinking enrollment. Once that situation became a reality, districts began to merge to share resources. Here are the statistics I pulled from ERIC:

"School district consolidation is a striking phenomenon. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 117,108 school districts provided elementary and secondary education in 1939-1940. By 2006-2007, the number of districts had dropped to 13,862, a decline of 88 percent. The rate of consolidation has slowed in recent years, but at least a few districts consolidate every year in many states. Most state governments have policies that influence school district consolidation. The most common form of policy is a state aid program designed to encourage district reorganization, typically in the form of consolidation, by providing additional money for operations or capital projects during the transition to the new form of organization."

Despite Mark Twain's biting quip about school boards, I continue to have the belief that people of good will supported by adequate staff can help a school district function effectively. What does it say about our society if we can't make democracy function at this most basic level?

Posted by: dlt44 | January 18, 2011 3:00 PM | Report abuse

I have lived in the DC/Baltimore areas for over 30 years. However, the first 25 yrs of my life were spent in and around Boston. I even worked for a year for the Mass. Dept of Education in the interesting "civil rights" years. I often dealt with small town and suburban superintendants on the interpretation of the growing number of state regulations which were new at the time, although the numbers were paltry compared with the present maze of state regulations.

Massachusetts and the New England states are where the Puritans and offshoots began public education in America. They strongly believed in town control of schools, as the best approximation of family control absent each family home schooling(which ironically is back).

While there has been in the past 50 years consolidation of some town districts into regional districts, most towns and all cites have their own school systems, with school committees, staff and seperate schools to fit the boundaries of the city or town. Some suburban systems in Massachusetts are relatively large, but few if any as large as say, Montgomery or Fairfax Counties, with similar economic profiles.

While I am very skeptical of all rankings of state school systems and even rankings within states, nevertheless Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Hampshire at least consistently produce highly ranked systems, students who attend four yr colleges in high percentages, and compare well on National Assessment Tests conducted by DOE. (I cannot comment on Vt, RI or Maine, with which I am not as familiar.) My point is, academic success is probably tied to systetms which retain numerous local school boards and independent districts.

A tradition of learning fostered by the Puritans, enforced by the entrepreuners who built industry in the 19th century, the presence of many private colleges(public colleges in NE are relatively small compared with the South and Midwest) and the presence in most communities of professionals and graduates of quality colleges leads to a mindset of respect for education.

Massive federal or state spending, or the creation of megadistricts led by hired gun superintendants approved by Gates, Finn, or other experts insure nothing. What matters is the environment, in and out of school, that a child encounters from the day of birth to the day of high school gradution.

Mr. Matthews often and correctly deplores easy answers in education. I believe we have to emphasize even more that in a political system with local communities at the core,and not a central govt as in France or China, the best guidance is local guidance.

Ideally, principals and supers would come from the community they serve for life. Impractical, but communities are not built in a day. And we cannot remove achievement gaps by programs based on money, rhetoric and resentment of successful learning cultures.

Posted by: stephenfeldman | January 21, 2011 11:26 AM | Report abuse

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