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The secret to good schools might surprise you

Published: Tuesday, April 22 2014 11:00 p.m. MDT

“The ALEC goal to eliminate school districts and school boards is a bit shocking,” writes Julie Underwood at the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, “but the idea is to make every school, public and private, independent through vouchers for all students. By providing all funding to parents rather than school districts, there is no need for local coördination, control or oversight.”

“School boards are an obsolete and archaic form of governance,” says Fordham’s Chester Finn, who would prefer to see schools absorbed into city government, democratically accountable through the mayor and city council. New York City currently functions on this model, and former Mayor Michael Bloomberg was able to aggressively drive school issues there.

But Finn doesn’t have a problem exploring how to more effectively choose school boards. “We need a governance overhaul in public education,” Finn said, “but until that glorious day comes, we have elected local school boards. And this study shows that it matters who is on them.”

How and why?

If school boards do make a difference, how exactly do they do it? The researchers are not really sure, Hartney acknowledges, whether they are looking at cause or effect. They know that board members in high performing districts focus on student achievement.

The report also found that when board members were professionalized, underwent professional training and in some cases even earned a salary, students performed better. But a community that is already focused on student achievement may be more likely to elect like-minded board members.

Hartney acknowledges that a board member’s academic focus and the board’s professionalization may not cause educational outcomes. Instead, they could both reflect the makeup of a community focused on results.

“We didn’t study the inner workings of the boards,” Finn said. “All we did was to see if the characteristics of the people on the board could be aligned with district achievement. And the answer was ‘yes.’”

School boards do have far less control today than they did a generation or two ago, notes Patte Barth, director of the Center for Public Education at the National School Boards Association.

Barth notes a steady expansion of state and federal budgeting and education policy control. Firing or even reassigning teachers protected by unions can be a daunting matter, and federal funding tied to programs like No Child Left Behind and the new common core program all push decision-making up the ladder.

But Barth does see significant remaining influence that can shape how a school performs. They hire and fire superintendents, she says, they have a strong role to play in implementing state and federal standards effectively through budgeting choices, and some school boards add their own graduation requirements to state standards.

“There are a lot of things they can do that directly affect student learning,” Barth said.

Email: eschulzke@desnews.com

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