Cross: American school boards are in crisis. Here are 9 ways to solve this problem – and stay focused on raising children

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Public school governance in many communities is on the verge of total collapse.

From coast to coast, border to border, local school boards are fighting over issues ranging from painting on Works Progress Administration murals to deciding whether to follow the science on COVID- 19 or give in to the loudest voices. There are fights over curriculum, bathrooms, racial issues such as renaming schools, masks, vaccinations and police presence on campuses.

Many of these issues have torn communities apart and led to violent clashes, even violence, and the destruction of property.

In several communities, people have resigned from school boards or declared that they will not run for office due to the intensity of the problems dividing the communities. Meanwhile, issues such as student performance, teacher compensation and working conditions, and the loss of student learning during the pandemic remain on the sidelines.

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School boards are one of the oldest forms of governance in the country. The first dates back 300 years, to Boston in 1721, decades before the American Revolution and the Constitutional Convention.

Although today’s council members still perform traditional tasks such as signing employment contracts and maintaining and building schools, their role has changed over time. In larger districts, serving on the school board has become a stepping stone to higher office and a way to create name recognition and raise campaign funds.


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The United States has what is probably the most fragmented K-12 public school governance system in the world. There are 50 state agencies, a variety of districts and intermediate agencies, approximately 13,500 local school districts and approximately 100,000 district public schools, as well as more than 7,500 public charter schools. About 94% of the country’s 95,000 school board members are elected. Reasons for seeking an elected seat on the board of directors include personal agendas, political or political agendas, and a commitment to serve the best interests of children. In some cases, there is evidence that people are recruited to run for board seats by political and, often, extremist organizations.

In few states are board members required to undergo training before assuming responsibility for what could represent billions of dollars in expenses, thousands of jobs and the future of, collectively, 50 million students whose interests they are supposed to represent.

With that in mind, here are a number of actions that every state, every school board, can take to improve the governance of our public schools:

  • Require newly elected board members to undergo an orientation session on key issues as a prerequisite to being sworn in. Make sure it’s done by experts, not lawyers. This training should make a clear distinction between the governance functions of the board and the management functions of the superintendent and his office. They should also receive training focused on group decision-making protocols and procedures, including civil discourse and dialogue.
  • Adopt and enforce a code of conduct specifically designed for and by the board.
  • Adopt a conflict of interest policy.
  • Create the position of parliamentarian, who is not a member of the board of directors and can ensure that the rules, procedures and code of conduct are respected.
  • Identify the most critical education issues facing the community and ask the board to focus on those issues. Ensure that each part of the community has the opportunity to voice their main concerns.
  • Move council elections to a date that will increase voter turnout. In most school board elections, turnout is among the teens, which means that only one interest group can prevail in electing candidates, whether or not their views reflect the interests of the community in his outfit. Consider holding elections in areas within school districts to ensure broad representation.
  • Organize community forums before the election and ask candidates to participate. Have them moderated by a professional moderator.
  • Set reasonable term limits so that all parts of the community have the opportunity to be represented.
  • Consider having a board made up of elected members as well as members appointed by the highest elected official in that jurisdiction. This is done in states like Ohio and some local areas. In Maryland, there are elected, appointed, and hybrid local councils. Many large cities have only appointed members.

In the turmoil felt in many communities, it is essential that the quality of teaching and learning and the conditions that enable these two goals are task #1. Do not let school boards become a place where ‘one exposes problems that crowd out attention. about children and learning. School boards must not become training grounds for political activism that goes far beyond the best interests of educators and children.

Christopher T. Cross is a former chairman of the Maryland State Board of Education and a former United States Undersecretary of Education. He was a Distinguished Member of the United States Education Commission.


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