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04/22/92

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Report advocates new role for local school boards

STANFORD -- What's wrong with school boards, one of America's oldest educational institutions, and what can be done to "fix" them?

A new report urges the nation's 15,350 school boards to turn from "micromanagement" to policymaking, and otherwise adapt to the needs of the 21st century.

The report has come under attack from school board leaders, while it has been endorsed by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT).

"Report on the Twentieth Century Fund Task Force on School Governance" was issued by a 19-member group of educators, journalists and business leaders sponsored by the Twentieth Century Fund and the Danforth Foundation. Stanford University education Prof. Michael Kirst, a former president of the California State Board of Education, was executive director of the report.

Historically, school boards have been involved both with school policymaking and the day-to-day details of school operations, Kirst said. Such a role is unique - corporate and hospital boards do not assume a management role in their institutions, nor do boards of trustees for universities take on such a task.

"You don't go to the University of California Board of Regents with administrative details and expect them to intervene," Kirst said. "Yet parents and citizens go to school board members with very detailed complaints - whether to replace a teacher or change a school schedule for a half-day - and they expect board members to fix it.

"We have to change the expectations of the citizenry. Citizens think going to a school board member is like writing to your congressman. As a result, school boards are at the beck and call of every constituent.

"We also have to change school boards' views about their need to focus on policymaking."

Many school board members prefer to focus on managerial details or school operations, and many superintendents would prefer to keep policymaking for themselves, Kirst said.

Citing the continuing drift of local school authority toward the state, the report called on state governments to "repeal all current laws and regulations specifying the duties, functions, selection and role of school boards, many of which unnecessarily restrict the discretion of local school boards on policy matters."

"Today, state law requires and citizens view boards as the ultimate level of appeal for their concerns about schools, including the location of bus stops and street-crossing guards," the report said. "This kind of detailed supervision is exactly the opposite of what we believe school boards should be doing."

Many school boards have become "bogged down in the minutiae of routine administration and spend endless time dealing with detail." The report noted that the Tucson, Ariz., school board met 172 times in one year.

The use of an ombudsman, Kirst suggested, could drastically reduce the amount of time boards spend handling such matters as bus routes. "This would allow boards to focus on the larger issues on the educational agenda," he said.

The report noted other signs that the school board is an institution in crisis:

  • Constructive relationships between school boards and district superintendents have "collapsed almost entirely" in many large cities. In 1990, 20 of the 25 largest central city school superintendencies were vacant. Most superintendents in major cities lasted less than three years on the job.
  • School board election turnouts are low - below 7 percent in New York City, for example. The report said that "voter indifference" has created "unrepresentative" boards.

Among its more controversial suggestions, the report advised that the state void school board elections in which voter turnout is less than 20 percent, and call a new election.

This was among the recommendations most attacked when the report was announced this month at the annual meeting of the Education Writers Association in Miami.

Arlene Penfield, president of the National School Board Association, called this recommendation "naive" and "unprecedented in this country."

"Who would pay for the elections?" she asked. "The American public would not tolerate this. They have the right to vote - or to choose not to."

She also said that the report "fails to recognize changing demographics." She pointed out that, in some communities, 60 to 80 percent of the residents don't have children in schools; hence, voter indifference to school board issues.

  • Boards fail to coordinate their activities with other children's services, such as the departments of health, childcare agencies, and protective and juvenile services. As a result, there is fragmentation and neglect in serving children.

Part of school boards' problems, Kirst said, is that "society has changed but school boards haven't."

School boards originally were "a very local institution, designed to be very close to the people in rural areas," he said. "They helped define schools for the public, and helped educate parents about the school."

In the 1930s, there were more than 100,000 school boards, charged with all the details of policymaking and management. By the 1990s, through consolidation, only 15,000 school boards - many covering much larger districts - remained.

Moreover, in the first two decades of the century, school boards were deliberately severed from other children's agencies to isolate them from "city politics." Now, they are increasingly asked to integrate those same social services, and the report recommended that states establish new children and youth coordinating boards, to integrate services for children with multiple needs - a move that was praised by the teachers union.

And, far from isolating schools from city politics, the report recommended that the mayor might appoint the majority of school board members in major cities, upon recommendations of a "screening panel." Penfield of the school board association said that this would remove school board members' accountability to the public.

Penfield disagreed with the report's criticism of school board micromanagement. Too often, she said, parents and other members of the public view the superintendent as "unapproachable" and school board members are the only bridge between citizens, particularly parents, and the schools.

AFT President Albert Shanker, however, agreed with the report's conclusions: "To be effective, our school boards and top management should be watchdogs and policy setters, not the day- to-day managers of our schools."

Kirst said that the report is the first study to outline a new role for school boards and is the "most comprehensive study of school boards since the early 1960s." He said the report should bring a new focus onto school boards, which he hailed as "a cornerstone of local democracy" and "a distinctive hallmark of American education for more than 150 years."

"Americans have always felt education is too important to leave to the educators," Kirst said.

However, he warned, future school boards must support creative reform more effectively and address "the real needs of children."

"Without the kind of changes we recommend," the report concluded, "the whole debate over education will be hollow, filled with wonderful concepts and ideas and without a structure that can make reform a reality."

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