Are School Boards Idiots?

Mark Twain once quipped, “God made the idiot first, for practice. Then He made the school board.”

Nonetheless, according to the Center for Public Education, school boards are “critical” because, at least in theory, they look out for children. They incorporate their community’s view of what students should know and be able to do; and, perhaps most importantly, the boards are accountable to that community, acting, in fact, as the “education watchdog” for it.

Well, especially in that last respect, too many school boards have succeeded only too well. And, that’s why they’ve been idiots.

School boards are the quintessential manifestation of local sovereignty. Our founding fathers insisted that education, among many other things, remain a local concern — the purview of states and community school boards. Indeed, the fathers’ greatest fear was an overreaching, dictatorial national government.

With good reason. Over the last decades, the Department of Education has deftly executed a less-than-subtle coup d’état; using, for example, federal Title I funds to blackmail cash-starved states and school districts into implementing policies such as No Child Left Behind and the “voluntary” Common Core Standards.

This wouldn’t have been so catastrophic if those market-based reforms had been based upon evidence instead of ideology. In 1985, for example, Stanford University professor Linda Darling-Hammond documented that those states that had adopted high-stakes standardized testing as a means of education reform all suffered a subsequent decline in student achievement. Nonetheless, the Bush Administration made such testing national policy. In 2009, the most comprehensive study of charter schools revealed that, despite their significant advantages, only 17% of charters outperformed their public school counterparts, while fully 37% lagged behind. Still, the Obama Administration promoted charters as the centerpiece of its education policy.

And all the while, most school boards, like obedient little lap dogs, have done the bidding of the federal government. School boards have bared their teeth only at hapless superintendents and schools that failed to post high test scores.

My former superintendent raged publicly against high stakes standardized testing, but then made it her obsession, implementing practice computer-based testing throughout the year, even for kindergarteners. She knew her job depended on impressing the school board with high scores.

Principals did, too. Mine outlined a “balanced day” as one focused almost exclusively on math and Language Arts (since they were tested). History and art (since they were not) appeared at the bottom of her list, in parenthesis, to be taught “when we found the time.” The same narrowing of the curriculum occurred at district middle schools, too. Meanwhile, the school board banned most field trips, stressing how important it was to keep children in the classroom, in their seats, prepping for tests.

That school board was a fearsome watchdog. The trouble was, it served the federal government, not the local community (and certainly not the students).

Now we have a new secretary of education, billionaire Betsy DeVos, who seems intent on hastening the demise of public education. She definitely hopes to bring her embarrassing legacy of failed charter schools in Michigan to every community in the nation.

So far, the National and California School Boards Associations
have accepted charter school expansion with nary a whimper — this despite the mounting evidence of not only charter schools’ mixed performance, but also their disastrous effect on school funding, segregation and teacher retention, which is not even to mention charter schools’ obvious violation of the separation of church and state.

The question is, Will the NSBA as well as state and local school boards remain so maddeningly docile? Will they enforce even DeVos’ machinations? Or will they return to their true masters, accept their sacred responsibility to local communities, and finally, rabidly protect public schools and the children who cower defenseless within them?

I agree that school boards could be critical, particularly in their role as watchdogs. If Mark Twain was right, however, if school boards are, in fact, little more than idiots, then Betsy DeVos will have her way with public education, just as previous secretaries of education have had theirs.

It is long past time for school board members and their associations to recall who elected them, and whom they ought to serve.

David Ellison, author of Santander: Rambling on Borrowed Time, retired after 36 years in education to Ajijic, Mexico.

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