School Boards Have Too Much Power They Aren’t Using to Fix Education

Oct 30, 2020 12:00:00 AM


Considered me triggered. Again.

This past Sunday my 8 Black Hands crew did a show on the missing importance of school boards, and then this article pops up saying the National School Boards Association (NSBA) has launched a campaign called “Public School Transformation Now!”

The goal, flimsy as ever, is to “bring equity issues front and center.” [pullquote]I’m triggered because leaders, especially in education, consistently go for sophistry over function.[/pullquote] They focus on the feel-good rather than the complex. They love the fashion instead of the fix.

If you read through the article and the NSBA’s Twitter timeline you’ll be browbeaten with the words “reinvent!” and “reimagine!” and “transform!” With America’s massively ineffective public schooling gasping for air from the shock of COVID, I don’t blame them for branding their effort in aspirational terms even as parents and journalists complain about the remote learning “disaster” across cities. And I certainly don’t blame them for ringing the bell on important issues like increasing teacher diversity, stemming potential teacher shortages, the urgent need for flexibility on how special education services are delivered, and the national need to ensure kids can access the internet. But it feels like some essentials are missing from their hubbub.

Look at the ten items Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond offered to the NSBA members during their recent webinar. She sees these things as critical for education school board members to focus on when “reimagining” their school systems.

These include:

  • Closing the digital divide.
  • Strengthening distance and blended learning.
  • Assessing what students need.
  • Ensuring supports for social and emotional learning.
  • Redesigning schools for stronger relationships.
  • Emphasizing authentic, culturally responsive learning.
  • Providing expanded learning time.
  • Establishing community schools and wraparound supports.
  • Preparing educators for reinventing schools.
  • Leveraging more adequate and equitable school funding.

This is all good stuff. No sober person will quibble with school districts doing better with remote learning, increasing the range of supports for students, deepening important relationships, and making school funding “equitable.” Except for me. I am not sober. I’m tired of nicey-nice pablum. I’ll quibble.

School Boards Need to Earn Their Relevance

School boards are powerful animals made up of elected or appointed individuals who collectively are to govern the budgets and curriculum of school districts through a single employee, the superintendent. Sticking with that basic frame, my list for school boards to earn their relevance during these tough times looks a little different than Dr. Darling-Hammond’s.

First, leaders should “reinvent!” public school fiscal stewardship. The lowest of hanging fruit on this front is to stop the routine practice of signing labor contracts behind closed doors that they know they cannot afford and that any reasonable observer can predict will cause financial instability that hurts children and families.

Going deeper, the NSBA could commit to a national campaign aimed at training board members and local leaders to spend public money wisely and equitably. School finance is in fact a form of rocket science, so I won’t attempt an insightful take on that issue here, but suffice to say, as a former school board member and student of the spending problem over a decade, I can tell you that as public education boosters speak globally about the need for increased school funding, they fail to act on the equally important issue of how local districts spend locally. If money matters, spending matters more.

Second, beyond the vague goal of “strengthening distance and blended learning,” which for my ears sounds like a plan to put Band-Aids on heart attacks, school leaders need to modernize their pedagogical schemes using evidence-based practices so that informed teaching results in demonstrative learning.

Third, wouldn’t it be nice if school boards focused on improving educational leadership, beginning with themselves? The pipeline for competent and sharp school board members and superintendents is among the most obvious weaknesses in public education. Who is working on it? What is the NSBA doing about the problem?

Not to be sensationalist, while many school boards are models of civic efficacy, many others descend into appalling dysfunction. Salt Lake City has school board members who have recently apologized for sending “vulgar and inappropriate” hate messages to each other. The East Baton Rouge’s school board is finding it difficult to execute on its very first job of hiring a superintendent. Nashville ran its first Black superintendent out of town because three of its school board members were drinking Diane Ravitch’s temperance tea from white dixie cups.

I could go on.

This leads to another area the NSBA could put their back into, educational democracy.

Even as we’re sold the mirage of public schooling as the “bedrock” of democracy because they are governed by we-the-people through transparent and open elections, the truth is that school board elections are often held during off-years from bigger elections, which virtually ensures the undemocratic problems that come with startling low voter turnout.

School board elections are too often dominated by local public employees who bundle their dollars and marshal their free groundworkers to hire their own bosses. As for voters, election results are largely determined by white voters and the outcome is that 78% of school board members are white even as only 48% of America’s 50 million public school students are white. Add to that the fact that less than a third of school board members are parents of school-aged children and you can see the disconnect between the governors of schools and the governed.

Finally, if the NSBA wants to go for a true game-changing moonshot in public education, the one that attacks a fundamental problem that is within their power to fix; if they want to correct the one thing in public education that would do more damage to systemic inequities than a million professional development self-flagellants about racial inequality; if they want to truly reimagine, redesign, and reinvent public schools and transform them from being inequality’s greatest student sorting machine; then they will immediately put all of their attention on the foundational problems of educational redlining and school district gerrymandering.

Yet, [pullquote]after a million popular journalism stories about integration and the supposed racist origins of school choice, or the attempts of evil people to privatize education by offering redlined families roads out of their redlining, there is scant attention paid to the people ultimately responsible[/pullquote]: the school board members who rule America’s 14,000 school districts.

Alas, school districts have an outsized role in determining district boundaries, and, subsequently, district boundaries play a determining role in how zip codes become deadly to the hopes, dreams, and potential of American children.

I know that’s a lot for the NSBA to chew on. I won’t blame them for opting to focus on their more reasonable goal of laying fiber-optic tracks so that every kid gets internet soon. That’s clearly more realistic and on task.

This post originally appeared on Citizen Stewart as "School Boards Have Too Much Power They Aren’t Using to Fix Education."

Chris Stewart

An award-winning writer, speaker, and blogger, Chris Stewart is a relentless advocate for children and families. Based in outstate Minnesota, Chris is CEO of brightbeam, a nonprofit media group that runs campaigns to highlight policies and practices that support thriving kids. He was the founding Director of the African American Leadership Forum, was an elected member of the Minneapolis Board of Education, and founded and served as the CEO of Wayfinder Foundation. Above all, Chris is a serial parent, a Minecraft enthusiast, and an epic firestarter on Twitter where he has antagonized the best of them on the political left and right. You’ll often see Chris blogging at and “tweeting” under the name “Citizen Stewart.”

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