THERE IS A JOKE among educators: When a doctor makes a mistake the patient dies; when a lawyer makes a mistake the client goes to jail; when a teacher makes a mistake the student grows up to be a school board member.
The anxiety that this joke spoofs has helped build the teacher unions and encouraged the calcification of our educational system. The good programs -- the programs that educators know take time and commitment -- have a hard time surviving the political climate caused by elected boards.
School boards are an American invention. The first one became autonomous in Massachusetts in 1826.
The number of school boards grew to over 200,000 in the early 1900s and is now declining to about 15,000 in 1984.
The trend deserves to continue.
The biggest flaw is political. Approximately 85 percent of all school board members are elected -- the rest are political appointees. Their sole purpose is to ensure the kind of education that their communities want. But they are first and foremost politicians who need to have their names in the news frequently, and who must demonstrate in a short time (typically four years) that they have improved the educational system.
This leads to a short-term balance-sheet mentality, in which looking good is much more important than being good. The ever-shifting tides of educational theory are roiled by the rapid turnover of politicians and the educational bureaucracies respond by becoming more and more insecure and rigid.
It might be argued that county commissioners, municipal officials or whoever the local governing body may be will be just as responsive to political pressures as the school board. Why take control away from one group of politicians -- a group that specializes in educational issues -- and give it to another group with no such special interest?
The answer is that it's far better that the people overseeing education be a group with other concerns and campaign issues than a group whose success depends solely on education. With other issues to deal with, politicians are better able to resist the temptation of short-term educational projects that grab attention.
Then there's the meddling that school board members do. The ones who interfere in the day-to-day operations of their school systems are not rare, and this often extends as far as giving orders to administrators other than the superintendent. Because of the power of hiring, firing and promotion held by these people, it is difficult for an administrator to ignore even these most blatant abuses of power.
Besides, there really aren't that many major policy issues for school boards to decide, and much of their time is spent making decisions that would be better left to professionals. Perhaps the worst board member is not the one who knows nothing about the educational system, but rather the one who tries to know too much.
A final problem of school boards affects only boards without the power to levy taxes and control their own budgets. Maryland and Virginia are among those states whose boards must request funding from local governing authorities. In this difficult situation, each group believes it controls education and each tends to take political potshots blaming the ills of the schools on the other. Consistency and planning are again the victims.
Another victim is employe relations. Unions are forced to negotiate with a group that does not actually have funding authority. The school board can then blame the local government for not providing adequate compensation, the local government can in turn fault the school board for mismanagement and the union is left to become more frustrated, angry and strident in its demands. It's a ridiculous system, and one with serious costs to education.
If we abolish school boards, who will take over their functions? They would be shared by local government and professional educators.
The government should control issues such as final approval of the budget, appointment of the superintendent and perhaps a few of his deputies, and approval of the system's philosophy, goals and objectives. The day-to-day operation of the school system, as well as professional appointments, curricula, textbooks, grading, discipline, eligibility for extra-curricular activities and long-range planning should be left to the superintendent and his deputies.
If the results aren't satisfactory, the local politicians can appoint a new superintendent. As long as things are running smoothly, the system will be blessed with little interference and implicit support.
This is not the first call for an end to school boards. J. C. Judd, the Dean of the School of Education at the University of Chicago, wrote in 1934 that school boards obstructed efficient school administration and should be abolished. Others have made similar complaints, and in frustration some have gone as far as Mark Twain when he said: "First God made idiots, That was for practice. Then he made school boards."
But the fault doesn't lie with the school boards. Most board members are well-meaning, intelligent people and certainly the number of rascals is no greater than among elected officials anywhere. It is the structure of school boards that is idiotic, not the people who serve it, and it is the structure that should be abolished.