Examining the school board model

Published on October 14, 2011 by

Later this month, Connecticut’s highest court will decide to either allow the state-appointed school board to remain at the helm of Bridgeport’s schools, or to bring the previous elected board back to power.

“We feel that the new board is an illegal or an unlawful board,” said Maria Pereira, one of the board members who voted against the state takeover on July 5, when the city’s board of education voted, 6-3, to dissolve the board and hand control of the schools to the Connecticut State Department of Education.

A new board of education was appointed by the acting commissioner, but two of the three board members who opposed the takeover, Pereira and Bobby Simmons, parents’ groups and others filed suit to block the takeover. The case is expected to be heard the week of Oct 27. Meanwhile, the new appointed board is hashing out the Bridgeport schools’ budget woes.

The reason given for the dissolution of the previous board was “dysfunction,” an allegation that Pereira contests.

Bridgeport is not the first community in Connecticut or in the United States to experience a school takeover. Hartford was taken over by the state in 1997. The Chicago schools, though now controlled by a board of education, spent 12 years under the guidance of a mayor and an appointed board. New York City disbanded its community school boards in 2002.

This begs the question: Are boards of education, as an institution, dysfunctional? Might there be a better model for governing public schools?

Pereira doesn’t think so.

“Boards of education are crucial,” she said. “Their focus, and their only focus, is education.”

School boards first formed in the United States to govern “common schools,” or public schools in the 19th century, according to Wendy Kohli, professor of curriculum and instruction at Fairfield University’s School of Education and Allied Professions.

“Right from the get-go there was a strong commitment to local control,” she said.
As an institution, said Kohli, the American school board was never perfect. Often, the board would not reflect the community it represented, with upper-class male landholders often sitting on boards of education.

In the last century, she said, the role of the board has changed; school boards have become more representative of the districts served, but they have also lost much of their clout.

“Obviously, in the last 50 to 100 years, the roles of state government and national government have gotten bigger in regards to educational policy,” said Kohli.

A symbol
At the moment, she said, the school board is more of a symbol of local control; policy is set at the national and state levels. The job of the local school board is to implement those policies.

Emily Smith, a professor of curriculum and instruction at Fairfield University’s Graduate School of Education and Allied Professions, feels that one of the problems with local school boards has to do with who is allowed to sit on those boards.

“I think there is an inherent dilemma in school boards,” she said.
According to Smith, school boards allow the community a say in the education of its children, but also permit non-educators to govern the schools.

“I think that there could be more of a balance with who is on the board,” she said.
Specifically, Smith feels that teachers employed by a district ought to be allowed to run for the board of education.

Smith doesn’t think it’s any more of a conflict of interest than another, more common kind of elected board member.

“A parent who has a child in the district is no more or less qualified than a teacher who is employed by the district,” she said.

Smith also believes that another segment of the school community should be represented on the school board: the students. She believes that a student representative could sit on a board as a non-voting member.

“Students actually have some smart things to say,” she said. “To me it seems a no-brainer.”

Most communities in Connecticut elect local school boards, but there are some exceptions.

In New Haven, the school board is appointed by the mayor. A representative for New Haven did not return a call for an interview.

Other communities, such as the towns of Bethlehem and Woodbury (Region 14) or Woodbridge, Bethany and Orange (Amity), have already consolidated into regional school districts.

Other models
In other states, different models of education have been used. The New York City Department of Education, for example, is run by a chancellor who reports to the mayor.

A mayor-run school system is not something that Robert Rader, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, would like to see.

“I think it would be terrible,” he said. “There would be a lot more politics involved… While in theory it might be good to have one person in charge, when you have a board in the way, it creates a check and balance.”

The idea of the superintendent of schools reporting directly to the mayor as a commissioner is anathema to Pereira.

“I think the mayor has enough power,” she said. “I don’t think he needs any more.”
Fergus Cullen, executive director of the Yankee Institute for Public Policy, a libertarian think tank in Hartford, also feels that locally-elected school boards are necessary but believes that the state has too many school districts.

“(Connecticut) has around 140 (in a state with 169 towns) and they all need a superintendent, an assistant this and a deputy that, and a bookkeeper and an accountant and a legal counsel. Huge duplication of services and expenses,” wrote Cullen in an e-mail.

Cullen suggests that small districts join bigger neighboring districts to form regions.
“Clearly there are efficiencies to be had with at least some consolidation,” said Cullen.
The idea of consolidating school districts, governance and funding is nothing new.
“Vermont tried to do this,” said Kohli.

In 1997, the Vermont legislature signed Act 60, or the Equal Educational Opportunity Act, into law. The law was a response to a Vermont Supreme Court decision that stated that Vermont’s existing educational funding system was unconstitutional. Act 60 eliminated tax rates based on local grand lists. Each town paid a certain amount of money into an Educational Fund. The budgets from each school system were awarded from that fund.

Act 60 was controversial — a 1998 article in The Economist likened Act 60 to Robin Hood —  and the law was amended in 2003.

The problem with an appointed school board, said Kohli, is the manner in which public schools are funded.

“As long as we maintain local property tax as a source of funding,” she said, “the local community is going to want its own board.”

She pointed to school budget hearings and referendums, which often draw a large amount of support and criticism from local taxpayers.

“It’s probably the only actual chance people have to say no to a tax,” she said.