School-Board Sloth

Fight the school-board lobby

Mr. Kopel is the research director & Representative Tom Tancredo is the former president of the Independence Institute.
National Review Online, March 8, 2001 10:35 a.m. More by Kopel on Education.

First God created idiots," wrote Mark Twain. "That was for practice. Then he created school boards." Is it time to undo God's work, and abolish district school boards? Around the nation, education-reform activists, such as Arizona State Superintendent of Public Instruction Lisa Graham, are suggesting that states should just hand over education funding directly to the local schools, instead of passing the money through a school-district bureaucracy.

According to scholars John Chubb and Terry Moe of the liberal Brookings Institution, school boards are a major obstacle to education reform. Because of the heavy spending and strong volunteer effort of the teachers' unions, school boards tend to be controlled by members who owe their jobs to the union.

For instance, in a typical school-board election in Jefferson County, Colo. (the state's most heavily populated county), the Colorado Education Association (CEA) spends over $50,000 on its candidates, while candidates opposed by the CEA are forced to run a county-wide race on a budget of only $5,000.

There's nothing wrong with the CEA spending its money on politics, and it would a free-speech infringement to attempt to drive the CEA out of politics through campaign-spending limitations. But the CEA's ability to control school boards becomes problematic when union needs clash with student needs — such as when rigid rules make it nearly impossible to fire incompetent teachers.

Indeed, the rigidity imposed by school boards is often harmful to high-quality teachers. For example, in the Boulder Valley School District (next to Jefferson County, Colo.), School Board President Stan Garnett announced that race could never become the subject of scientific inquiry by students. He shut down a science-fair project by a third-grade girl who had studied whether adults and children thought a black Barbie prettier than a white Barbie — or whether people simply preferred the Barbie with the better dress.

Next there's the problem of bureaucratic centralization. There is no way that a board of from five to seven individuals — no matter how brilliant and altruistic — could possibly create the best educational experience for each and every child in their district.

Consider the Jefferson and Denver County School Districts. Together these two districts "serve" almost a quarter of the entire school population in the state. That means that a total of 12 people set the conditions to hire all the teachers, build all the buildings, set the curriculum, and spend all the tax dollars for the education of some 140,000 children.

When all schools in a large school district have to follow the same policy, set by a single board, parents and students don't get the kind of education they want. For example, the school-board elections in Littleton, Colo. have involved huge fights between advocates of academic fundamentals and advocates of "outcome-based" education. In Boulder, control swings back and forth between a CEA faction that despises charter schools and opposes enriched classes for advanced students in middle school and a group of insurgents who desire a diversity of schools, and want kids to be able to progress as fast as they can. (The reigning faction is the anti-diversity, anti-advancement group.) Accordingly, no matter who wins the election, a large number of parents and students will lose, since the whole district gets run by a philosophy that runs counter to students' academic interests.

Some boards do recognize that they must at least pay lip service to the demands for decentralization, but very rarely does a board devolve real power to the parents and faculty of a local school. Even in Denver's highly touted "collaborative decision-making" model (which involves parents in school decisions), no school team can contract out for education services or hire and fire teachers or control most of the spending in the school.

Despite Mark Twain's quip, school boards used to get a lot more respect about a century ago. Then, school districts were much smaller, and school boards really were instruments of democratic, community involvement in the schools.

But today, the school boards of the huge, consolidated school districts wrest power away from local communities. In the massive Jefferson County school district, voters in Lakewood have no burning interest in electing the people charged with governing the public schools in faraway Golden? (And vice versa.)

The school-board lobby (e.g., the Colorado Association of School Boards (CASB)) and its legislative allies raise three main objections to handing over the state's educational funds directly to local schools.

First, the state might lose federal-education funding, they fear, since certain federal grants must be given to school boards, not to individual schools. True, but this is just an argument to shift federal education funding toward a less-restrictive block-grant program. In any case, the cost of complying with federal mandates and paperwork eats up many of the benefits of federal support.

Second, large, centrally governed school districts supposedly create economies of scale. CASB's executive director compared school districts to Wal-Mart, with its large purchasing power. But being big isn't the same as being efficient. Wal-Mart has competitors, while school boards have a quasi-monopoly. If centralized control always produced economies of scale, the Soviet Union would have been the richest country on earth.

Besides, independently owned companies can and do compete with Wal-Mart by forming voluntary-purchasing cooperatives. Without school boards, individual schools could work together to buy desks and chalk in bulk. Without school boards, principals of individual schools would be free to fire incompetent teachers, reward the best teachers with a year-end bonus, and spend money to repair the gymnasium — without having to send reams of paper to the school-district office begging for permission.

Without school boards, local schools would have more money, since state aid wouldn't be siphoned off by an intermediary bureaucracy.

Finally, some states, including Colorado, constitutionally mandate that state aid to education will be funneled through school boards, and that school districts will be the main revenue generators of local-property taxes. So, full abolition of school districts in some states would probably require a state constitutional amendment.

Yet even without a constitutional amendment, most state legislatures have the authority to re-draw school-district boundaries. Legislatures could therefore split the monster school districts into much smaller pieces that would comprise genuine communities; so, at the very least, medium-sized cities could have their own school district. Indeed, large cities could have several school districts. As University of Colorado economist (and Independence Institute Senior Fellow) Barry Poulson has detailed, the consolidation of small school districts into mega-districts has played an important role in the decline of educational quality.

Just ask yourself. If you were charged with the responsibility of creating an education system and if you had no model on which you could rely, would you design the present system? Would you give all the resources to a few people? Would you consider the possibility that allowing schools to control the economic resources available to them would encourage more effective allocations of those resources — and better learning?

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