Who needs school boards?

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 16, 2011; 7:07 PM

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

School boards are also chided by the superintendents they hire, although 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. There, they feel better questioning the values and habits of the elected amateurs who could fire them immediately, if they wished.

The 21st century 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 fast. There were more than 80,000 in 1950. Now there are fewer 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 after combing through the data for and against this battered and bleeding symbol of local democracy, Gene I. Maeroff, a senior fellow at Teachers College at Columbia University, has concluded that "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 e-mails, 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. Most 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 teachers 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 boards' powers have their own flaws. He approvingly cites a consultant saying that 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, although 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 helping weak teachers and jettisoning them if they didn't improve.

Maeroff predicts that the number of school boards will continue to decline. Rural boards that have no schools and, thus, 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 responsibility for improving learning away from them, as the District has done, but let county officials handle boring stuff such as maintenance and transportation.

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

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