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School Board Relations

Relation Of School Board To The Community, Relation Of School Board To The SuperintendentCONTROL OF THE SCHOOLS

Michael D. Usdan

Kenneth K. Wong

Thomas E. Glass


American public education is uniquely structured: Unlike most other nations that tend to have highly centralized national systems of education, the locus of educational decision-making in the United States has traditionally been local. Some 14,000 local school districts in fifty diverse state systems have had delegated to them much of the operational responsibility for public education. Legally, education is a responsibility of the states, which have historically given local districts broad discretionary latitude to operate their systems. The federal government, until the last decade or so of the twentieth century, has had little overt control over education, but has always had considerable influence as national programs have multiplied through the years.

Beginning in the 1990s, and to some extent before then, these traditional roles of the federal, state, and local governments have been changing. As in so many other policy areas of the American polity, the focus of decision-making in education is shifting from the local to the higher levels of government. Increasingly, educational problems are being discussed and resolved in state capitols and Washington, D.C. Citizens have recognized that the problems confronting the public schools cannot be detached from society's broader social, economic, and political concerns. There has been widespread concomitant acknowledgment that local property taxes cannot be the major source of support for schools and that local boards of education will be compelled to rely increasingly on state and federal governments for fiscal assistance. Thus, issues like inequities in school finance, racial and ethnic disparities in student achievement, the relationship of schools to economic growth and development, and related education problems require attention at the state and national levels.

Although many important issues are now debated and acted upon in state capitols and in Washington, D.C., it would be a mistake to underestimate the continuing influence of local school boards. School boards retain important powers that often are overlooked by education reformers who frequently ignore the district level–a vital, strategic cornerstone of the education governance structure.

Rightly or wrongly, local boards and the administrative staffs whom they employ are often regarded by reformers as part of the problem and not the solution to the complex issues confronting American education. As a result, local school boards and superintendents frequently have been unengaged in the ongoing education reform debate.

Indeed, other than a few studies, the relative strengths and weaknesses of the local governance structure have been remarkably ignored during a period of unprecedented public ferment and national interest in public education. But the school board, a unique grass roots representative institution with 97,000 individuals serving as members in approximately 14,000 local districts, persists as a crucial governance linchpin between the school and state levels.

Local school boards and the superintendents whom they employ do not necessarily have to be proactive, progressive, or creative to influence educational policy in very significant ways. Reformers must recognize that many boards and district administrators also influence and shape policy through their inaction. Indeed, as public polls reflect, in many school systems board members and administrators may be accurately reflecting and translating local values and goals in behaving in ways that do not aggressively push for education reform. In other words, in many communities there is basic acceptance of the status quo in schools; reformers, if they are to be successful in their laudable efforts to institutionalize change in the system, must be sensitive to the importance of such local values and goals. Critics will likely have to work with school boards as they appear to be permanent institutions and will continue in exercise considerable direct and indirect influence over the nation's decentralized and diffused educational system.

Local boards have enormous influence because they have the power to hire and fire the superintendent of schools, and have ultimate budgetary responsibilities and set the policy parameters for the district. Board members set the tone with regard to relationships with teachers, parents, and administrators as well as the community at large. If, for example, decentralization or restructuring (however defined) is to have any meaning, local school boards must support and perhaps prod their superintendents into delegating meaningful personnel and budgetary prerogatives to the building level.

Although it is extremely unlikely that the United States would create a fragmented governance structure with 14,000 local units if it could build the system de novo, the local board evidently appears to be too much a part of the fundamental political and educational tradition and culture to be structurally tampered with despite widespread apprehensions in the early twenty-first century about the effectiveness of schools and the pervasive and all too often justified criticism of school boards.

Education reformers can work more effectively within the existing structure to implement changes with the support of influential local officials; for example, district officials in their strategic position between state and building levels could serve as brokers or mediators. There are, for example, some definite contradictions between the "restructuring" movement with its emphasis on the importance of building level autonomy and the top-down regulatory nature of many late-twentieth-century state enactments that often have generated a numbing standardization in the educational process. Local boards and superintendents could be well-positioned intermediaries in efforts to reconcile these basic contradictions between top-down state regulations and bottom-up building level initiatives. Other steps could be taken to propel local boards more directly into the forefront of public discourse about education reform designed to increase student achievement. There is widespread civic ignorance about the roles and responsibilities of local boards and their strategic position in the education governance structure. Indeed, many of the new architects of educational policy from the political and business worlds could be given basic grounding in the rudiments of how schools are governed and organized.

More public attention should be focused upon issues such as the rapid turnover of local board members, the abysmally low voter turnout in local board elections, and the serious managerial, policy-setting, and operational problems that confront many local school officials. Educational reformers and the public at large must pay more attention to strengthening a vital institution that will continue to play an important role in shaping the nation's education future.


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DANZBERGER, JACQUELINE; KIRST, MICHAEL; and USDAN, MICHAEL. 1992. Governing Public Schools: New Times, New Requirements. Washington, DC: The Institute for Educational Leadership.

DANZBERGER, JACQUELINE, and USDAN, MICHAEL. 2000. "The Role of School Boards in Standards-Based Reform." Basic Education 44 (8).

GEMBERLING, KATHRYN W.; SMITH, CARL W; and VILLANI, JOSEPH S. 2000. The Key Work of School Boards Guidebook. Washington, DC: National School Boards Association.


GOODMAN, RICHARD H., and ZIMMERMAN, WILLIAM G., JR. 2000. "Thinking Differently: Recommendations for 21st Century School Board/Superintendent Leadership, Governance and Teamwork for High Student Achievement." <www.nesdec.org/Thinking_Differently.htm>.

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