7/1/2004 10:46 PM
Chapter 13: What School Boards Can and Cannot (or Will Not) Accomplish Jennifer L. Hochschild
For publication in William Howell, ed., Besieged: School Boards and the Future of Education Politics, Brookings Institution, 2005.
NOTE: not quite final version
Authors of these intriguing and important chapters pay relatively little attention to what school boards do. That is not especially surprising or alarming; most authors in this volume are political scientists, who typically focus more on processes than on outcomes. Nevertheless, any study of school boards ought at some point to address their actual activities – the functions boards should perform, the quality of their performance, and the opportunity costs of performing those functions rather than other possible ones. In this chapter I begin to address these issues by drawing out information and arguments from earlier chapters in the hope of opening an additional line of research and evaluation.
These chapters do, of course, indicate a variety of things that school boards do. Among other things, they:
- Hire and fire superintendents;
- Oversee budgets and prepare voting taxpayers in their districts for bond issues or increases in school taxes;
- Negotiate with teachers, often though not always through unions;
- Explain, legitimate, and speak for the school system in public;
- Implement, more or less, laws such as No Child Left Behind (NCLB) or court orders and consent decrees;
- Give out contracts for jobs, supplies, and services;
- Attend to reformers seeking to influence the school system, whether by enacting or repulsing their initiatives;
- Charter schools in some states and districts; and
- Run for higher political office.
Not many items on this list directly address questions of educational pedagogy and policy, and that seems warranted. We know from other research and commentary that boards spend less than a tenth of their time developing and overseeing policy; instead, they spend over half of their time on administration and responses to particular citizens’ concerns or problems (Olson and Bradley 1992; Silver 1997).
Is this appropriate? Do school boards perform a useful, even essential, function, and do they do it well? More broadly, even if boards do their manifest tasks well, do they inhibit the achievement of more important educational goals that would be performed by some other actor if they were abolished? To answer these questions, I need to abstract from this particular list (or any other) to discuss what roles school boards can be expected to perform and which they cannot.
An Instrument for Local Democracy
School boards were designed to be instruments of local democracy. That is why the United States (unusually among western nations) runs its public school system through a set of relatively small, geographically-defined, substantially autonomous school districts in most of which voters elect their local board.
To say that school boards are instruments of local democracy, however, is not to say that they demonstrate much democracy in action. Voter turnout in board elections is notoriously low, typically well below a quarter of the eligible voters (Hochschild and Kolarick 1997; Shen 2003). So one might question citizens’ commitment to the actual governance of their schools. Nevertheless, every survey shows fierce attachment to local control of education (Hochschild and Scott 1998), and residents of a district almost never choose to give up local control even for more resources or some other blandishment (Reed 2001; Shelly 2003).
Several factors help to explain the apparent contradiction between citizens’ commitment to local democracy and their anemic practice of it. First is the structure of school board elections. Candidates and media alike portray elections as nonpartisan, so voters lack reliable clues about which candidates may share their own views. School board elections are often held on a different date from any other election; local media are terrible in reporting the substantive issues at stake; and until recently more visible leaders such as mayors did everything they could to distance themselves from the public school system (Danielson and Hochschild 1998). Second, whether correctly or not, most citizens may be sufficiently satisfied with what they see in the schools that they are not impelled to try to overcome these structural barriers. Almost two-thirds of American households lack any children under the age of 18; members of these households may lack interest in or knowledge of schooling. And, again whether correctly or not, almost half of parents of public school students give a “grade” of A or B to schools in their community and over two-thirds give the same high grades to their own children’s schools. Third, when residents of a school district do get exercised over an issue, participation in school board elections spikes. An election involving, say, a controversial bond issue or a slate of candidates proposing to teach creationism in biology classes can generate turnouts of half or more of the district’s voters (Hochschild and Kolarick 1997). Within a few election cycles, turnout drops back down to a quarter or fewer – but the spike shows that there are slack resources available for more citizen involvement if people choose to gather them up (Dahl 1961). Similarly, voters appear to have at least a vague idea of whether educators are improving schooling outcomes for students in their district, and they are capable of punishing incumbent school board members if the answer is no (Berry and Howell, this volume).
So people may usually skip school board elections because they think they need not bother to overcome the considerable structural barriers to voting in them. That is not a good commentary on the depth of Americans’ commitment to democratic control. And it may be deeply and harmfully misguided if most citizens’ quiescence leaves electoral outcomes in the hands of special interests that do not have education as their primary goal (such as business contractors) or that have a distinctive view of how to improve education (such as teachers’ unions). But that conclusion does permit the claim that most school boards are, for better and for worse, good microcosms of the educational preferences of citizens within their district.
One can have further confidence that school boards are instruments of local democracy by noting that they can in fact respond to long-term changes in populations or in the desires of a community. Studies from the 1980s onward have found that if boards are elected through single-member voting districts, they may become reasonably representative of non-Anglo racial or ethnic groups within that school district, even if the majority of voters are European Americans. This descriptive representation can have important substantive results:
Hispanic representation on school boards [in 35 large urban school districts] is … a significant determinant of Hispanic employment as teachers…. Hispanic teachers have a major impact on the educational environment of the Hispanic student. Districts with larger percentages of Hispanic teachers also have Hispanic students who are more likely to complete school and more likely to attend college (Fraga et al. 1986: abstract).
Two papers in this volume (by XXX Marschall, and Kenneth Meier and YYY Juenke) develop this general point in sophisticated detail. Marschall shows that “district elections [rather than at-large elections] significantly increase the number of Blacks represented on local school boards” (Marschall, p. 17 of draft), although districting appears to have no impact on Latino representation. Meier and Juenke find that the effect of ward structures on Latino representation depends on whether Latinos are a majority of the population in a district, but more generally they too find that school boards can become representative of a changing population in a district. Having representation on a school board, in turn, often enables an otherwise-disadvantaged group to attain more administrative and teaching jobs for adults and better educational outcomes for children. District residents also become more satisfied with the school system.
Democratic elections to school boards, then, appear to satisfy most citizens most of the time, and voting can increase the level of political and substantive equality across groups within a school district. Local governance through elected school boards has other virtues as well. Americans have always prided themselves on their attachment to their school, even after the era when they built it with their own hands on land and with materials donated by leading members of the community. Perhaps this local pride in a vital homegrown institution explains why throughout the nineteenth and most of the twentieth centuries, American children (at least white boys) received more years of schooling, earlier, than did children in comparable European nations. David Campbell (in this volume) shows that at least some citizens attend local school board meetings – which by definition could not happen if there were not local boards – and that attendance rises a little as the population of the district falls; small, homogeneous communities are more participatory. Most importantly, local governance of schools has allowed our nation, with its vast disparities of cultures, values, goals, and practices not to tear itself apart over choices of curricula, resource allocation, or educational leadership.
Local Democracy Yields Overall Inequality
However, the virtues of elected boards are largely swamped, in my view, by the fact that elections within geographically-defined local districts often work to maintain if not increase political and educational inequality across groups in the larger arena. That is, local democratic governance in the American public school system sustains racial, ethnic, and class hierarchies in the society as a whole.
To say this is not to fault school boards or even voters for being racist, xenophobic, or elitist. Once locally-based elections for school boards are superimposed on a society with very high (and slowly falling) racial and ethnic geographic separation, and high (and rapidly rising) economic separation, and once we assume that voters care most about their own children or other children within their district, this outcome is almost inevitable. Intuitively, this is best seen by comparing the effects of gender in schooling to those of race and class. The United States no longer has much gender separation or inequality within public schooling. This outcome may stem from the fact that voters in any district are roughly evenly split between men and women, and are parents of both boys and girls -- so it is perhaps not surprising that they decided sometime after 1965 that girls deserved roughly the same education (even in extracurricular activities) as boys. These new views were fairly quickly translated into school boards’ decisions about superintendents, budgets, and policy guidelines, and the move toward gender equality in treatment and outcomes has proceeded without a lot of controversy. Girls joined boys in “shop” and calculus class and on the playing fields; boys joined girls in “home ec” (typically renamed). These changes may not be complete or well implemented, but that is not the point here. What matters for my purposes is that the move toward gender equity happened separately within each bounded district, but because districts were essentially the same in their gender ratios, district boundaries did little to retard this transformation.
Contrast this outcome with efforts to mandate racial and ethnic desegregation or funding equalization. Even within districts, school boards have not done as much to promote racial and class equality as gender equality. Schools in wealthier neighborhoods sometimes get more funds than schools in poorer neighborhoods in the district (Hertert 1995; Rothstein 2000; Iatarola and Stiefel 2003). Within a district, schools frequently remain racially identifiable, and immigrant children are disproportionately located in schools with each other and with native-born African American children (van Hook 2002). Even in a single school, rigid tracking or ostensibly more flexible ability grouping depends partly on achievement (which is itself racially and economically inflected), but it also has a very strong direct class bias (Hochschild and Scovronick 2003: chapter 6; Jones et al. 1995; Dauber et al. 1996; Lucas 1999). Districts vary in the overall proportion of students who pass high-stakes tests, but it is always the case that students who fail are disproportionately poor or of color.
School boards could influence these budgetary allocations, student assignments to schools, policies and practices of ability grouping, and preparation of students for high-stakes tests through their choice of superintendent, direct policy mandates, and symbolic statements. But they seldom try, or seldom succeed if they do try -- largely because of intense opposition from well-off, disproportionately Anglo, parents (Shore 1998; Fraga in this volume). Democratic control of locally-based school boards works against equal educational opportunities or outcomes even within a single district.
Nevertheless, most racial, ethnic, and class-based separation now occurs across rather than within district lines, and by at least some measures separation is rising steadily. (On racial separation, see Clotfelter 1999,2001; Cutler et al. 1999; National Center for Education Statistics 2001; National Center For Education Statistics 2003; Reardon and Yun 2001; Reardon et al. 2000; Oliver 2001. On ethnic separation also, see Rusk 2002; Orfield and Gordon 2001. On economic separation, see Rusk 2002; Abramson et al. 1995; Massey 1996; Madden 2000; Allen and Kirby 2000; Ho 1999; Orfield 2002). Almost all large urban districts have very few Anglo students; many suburban districts have few poor students. This is not, of course, a coincidence. People with children and sufficient resources, especially if they are European Americans, typically move out of urban districts and into suburban ones.
Educational separation in accord with district boundaries is particularly problematic because of the strength of peer effects (after all, recognition of the impact of peers in a classroom was one of the motivations for gender equalization and integration). The economic standing of a child’s schoolmates and classmates powerfully affects that child’s schooling outcomes (Kahlenberg 2001; Planning and Evaluation Service 1997; Hoxby 2000; Hanushek et al. 2003). Similarly, the racial mix of a child’s school and classroom peers has a substantial impact on that child’s level of racially integrated activity as an adult (Braddock et al. 1984; Wells 1995; Wells and Crain 1994; Hochschild and Scovronick 2003: chapter 2). Separation across district lines dramatically affects schooling outcomes for all Americans – some for better and others for worse.
School boards have little ability and even less incentive to address the severe educational consequences of this phenomenon. Voters in well-off (predominantly Anglo) districts usually perceive direct costs and perhaps even zero-sum games in the prospect of sharing their resources with children in poor (disproportionately nonAnglo) districts. They are willing neither to open their schools to more than a few “outsiders” nor to send much financial assistance or excellent educators into others’ districts. Democratically-elected school boards reflect and reinforce those views; they have seldom, to put it mildly, taken strong measures to redistribute resources or children across district lines. After all, they owe their position to voters within their own district who do not want to redistribute; in political terms they would lose rather than gain by seeking to improve the schools in another district.
In short, the causal chain on which I am focusing runs from high levels of racial and economic separation across geographically-based local school districts → school boards elected by voters within each district → school board decisions on superintendents, budgets, student placement, and curricula (among other things) → the maintenance or exacerbation of unequal outcomes of schooling. Other factors intervene, of course, as they always do in complex causal chains. Those factors include the parents’ commitment and ability to help the child navigate the complex school environment, the child’s commitment and ability to learn in the given context, the serendipity of an excellent teacher or a disability or a bully on the playground. But the causal chain just described overrides most individual-level variations; a predictable mix of values and fears, institutions and procedures, historical trajectories and current incentives – all playing out within boundaries set by states and seldom changed -- produce a dynamic in which the greater the amount of local democracy within districts, the less educational equality across states and the nation.
Policy Efforts to Promote Educational Equality
I am far from the first person to note this opposition between local democratic control and schooling equality. Much of the history of the past fifty years of educational reform can be seen as an effort to reduce the tension, largely by taking power away from school boards and giving it to one or another set of reformers. The epitomizing case is the decision by some federal courts and educational agencies between 1954 and 1968 to transfer student (and sometimes teacher) assignment from local elected officials to appointed regulators or judges. School boards were largely irrelevant to school desegregation, except for their many efforts to resist or subvert it (a few did support or even initiate desegregation plans). Other reform efforts have followed the same logic of pursuing equality by working around rather than through school boards. These efforts include:
- From the 1940s through the 1960s, state efforts to consolidate thousands of school districts, including eliminating thousands of school boards, partly in order to increase opportunities for children in small or rural districts (Berry, in this volume);
- from the 1970s on, judicial decisions to restructure school finance laws or to require state legislatures to do so, in order to reduce funding disparities between well-off and badly-off districts (Hochschild and Scovronick 2003, chapter 3);
- from the 1980s on, state-level designation of curricular standards and tests of their achievement, in order to raise the floor for students in the lower tracks or in especially weak schools (Dee 2003); and
- from the 1990s on, mayoral or state takeovers of failing schools or districts (Wong and Shen in this volume), laws permitting universities and other entities to charter schools, public funding of vouchers to permit low-income students to attend private and parochial schools – all in order to change the opportunity structure for students in unsatisfactory systems, schools, or classrooms.
Reformers have met with varying degrees of success. District consolidation persisted, although reformers now seek to offset some of its effects in high schools by promoting smaller and more targeted schools. School desegregation stalled and has even been partly reversed. The movement for public provision of vouchers has mostly failed so far (although recent Supreme Court activism may override popular preferences, as earlier Court activism did for a while with regard to desegregation). Charter schools and new funding formulas are in place but have had less impact than supporters hoped. It is too early to judge the success of NCLB (for early results, see Reed in this volume). As a result of this mélange of reform effort and failure, schooling outcomes are arguably more equal across race, gender, class, immigration status, and disability status than they were half a century ago. But not much, and seldom because of school boards.
Policy Efforts to Promote Local Democracy
While one set of reformers evade school boards in order to make schooling more equal, another set focuses directly on the issue of local board effectiveness in their core mission of promoting democratic participation in educational decision-making. Some are dismayed by what they have found. After all, if fewer than a quarter of citizens vote in board elections, it is easy for boards to be captured by special interests such as teachers’ unions (see Moe, this volume—but also Hess and Leal, this volume), contractors or other business interests (Stone 1998a: part 3), or an activist minority such as prosperous Anglos or proponents of Afrocentrism or creationism (Hochschild and Scovronick 2003: chapter 6; Binder 2002). Alternatively, even duly elected school boards may be too weak, disorganized, or distracted by other incentives to effectively promote the desires of residents within a given district.
So a different group of reformers have sought to strengthen democracy in local schools or districts, sometimes directly through school boards and sometimes in spite of them. These reforms include:
- school-based management (Anderson 1999; Keith 1999; Malen 1999);
- efforts to develop shared civic capacity in the community (Stone 1998b; Henig et al. 1999);
- efforts to develop social capital in the community (Putnam et al. 2003; Warren 2001);
- promotion of reform within teacher unions in order to facilitate school reforms (Zernike 2001; Chase 1997-98).
They too have had mixed results, and arguably even less success than the equality-minded reformers.
Policy Efforts That Might Harm, or Help, Both Democracy and Equality
Some analysts and activists argue that the real problem is not a tradeoff between local democracy, which entails strengthening school boards and districts, and greater equality, which entails working around local boards and districts. They fear instead that one or another particular reform effort will weaken both values. Thus critics worry that NCLB will remove accountability from local school boards (see Reed in this volume), and deny diplomas to weak (or merely badly-taught) students for no fault of their own. Some see school finance reform in the same light – it denies local districts the right to determine their own financial picture, and it pours money into dysfunctional districts that cannot or will not improve students’ outcomes. Others see publicly-funded voucher programs similarly –a broad voucher system would turn decision making about public functions over to the private sector, and it would make it even easier for wealthy suburbanites to keep their children away from “undesirables.”
A few reformers claim that their preferred policy can both strengthen local democracy and promote equal schooling outcomes. Afrocentrists, for example, argue that hiring black faculty and administrators and teaching an African-centered curriculum instead of the current Eurocentric one will be more responsive to the community’s desires and will motivate students to learn more. Supporters of bilingual education programs that promote cultural maintenance make a similar argument for predominantly Latino immigrant communities. I know of no evidence that systematically supports (or refutes) either claim (for discussion of both programs, see Hochschild and Scovronick 2003, chapter 7). In addition, even if students in particular schools or even districts benefit from ethnically or racially specific programs, no one has figured out how to enable these students to make a successful transition into the mainstream society. In my judgment, therefore, unless our nation’s sharp geographic divisions by race, ethnicity, and class are significantly reduced, the ability to both promote local democracy and equalize schooling outcomes for a large number of students seems to be beyond realistic conception.
Should School Boards Be Abolished?
Given that local school boards are unable or unwilling to promulgate much equality of students’ opportunities and outcomes, and given that boards may not promote democracy very well even within their own districts, should they nevertheless remain in existence? That question devolves into three: 1) what can we expect school boards to do well, 2) how well do they do at those tasks, and 3) is the accomplishment of those tasks sufficiently important that we should maintain boards even though they do poorly at promoting democracy and equality?
These questions frame a fairly substantial research agenda, and I shall not attempt to answer them fully here. Let me instead suggest, or rather revive, a theoretical framework that can help us to develop a set of answers. Paul Peterson’s City Limits (Peterson 1981) argues that each level of government—local, state, and federal – has distinctive virtues and defects that shape what policies it should promulgate in a well-ordered polity. We can apply a variant of that theory to the single policy arena of public schooling. Thus the local level, the mayor and school board are best suited to the allocation of resources such as contracts and jobs and to development, i.e. promoting the health or growth of a given school system. The national level, through laws and budgetary allocations, is best suited to the redistribution of resources across district and state lines. State governments should presumably function more like the national than like local governments since they hold most of the statutory authority for public schooling (see Briffault in this volume) and since their scope is broad enough that they could do a considerable amount of redistribution even within their borders.  The theory is silent on the appropriate role for courts; one would have to decide whether they should be understood as a potentially countermajoritarian institution (in which case they can redistribute, like the federal or state governments), or like a local system with limited autonomy and considerable responsiveness to voters’ desires. A full development of the logic of City Limits might also want to consider appropriate roles for nongovernmental actors such as reformers, experts, parents, and students themselves.
According to this theory, the list of school boards’ chores gleaned from other chapters in this volume with which this paper starts may be about right. Many of those tasks have to do with allocating and managing jobs and contracts, and with promoting support for and development of the school system among district residents. Thus one cannot fairly call for the abolition of boards on the grounds that their tasks are too mundane or trivial; someone has to do them. That leads to the second question—how well do school boards accomplish their appropriate tasks? That question will lead us to consider everything from corruption, efficiency, and administrative weakness to broader issues of accountability and capacity for learning and change. If a school board can allocate resources and develop the system well, and if it can bind the residents of the district to the public educational system through descriptive and substantive representation, responsiveness to powerful concerns, and flexibility in the face of change, then it passes the second test and does not (yet) warrant abolition.
Thinking more systematically about what school boards should do, and learning more about what they in fact do and how well they do it, are substantial research agendas in themselves. But the most important issue lies in response to the third issue -- whether school boards provide services that are so essential that they should be maintained even if they cannot promote robust democracy or greater equalization among students. Some reformers have argued, for example, that most budgetary and hiring decisions should be devolved downward to individual schools, while the rest are passed upward to regional associations that could have more professional management and more clout in purchasing supplies than local boards can muster. In such a fashion, boards could be eliminated and their functions better served. Systematic research on the combination of downward and upward reallocation of tasks – perhaps in other policy arenas such as health care – would be useful. So would comparisons across states, since Hawaii has one statewide school district and New Jersey has about 600 districts, some with school boards but no schools or students. Do states with many small districts and therefore many boards do a better or worse job of development and resource allocation than states with a few large ones? To my knowledge, we have no systematic research on the point.
One would also need to look at educational policy and practice – which are, after all, the point of public schooling. Do school boards mainly inhibit achievement by squelching innovative charter schools, caving in to rigid and self-serving teacher unions, or kowtowing to equally rigid and self-serving business elites? Or do they mainly encourage achievement by translating national and state mandates into workable policies and by hiring effective and committed superintendents? Does their apparently excessive attention to individual cases divert them from urgent system-wide priorities? Or does it create an essential safety valve so that the drive toward bureaucratic conformity is not permitted to run roughshod over idiosyncratic needs and circumstances? Here too, careful systematic research could help us judge how much Americans need local school boards in order to educate their children.
In the end, however, school boards should not be released completely from the largest concerns about democracy and educational equality. The federalist logic of City Limits has been answered by research that suggests more maneuvering room for local governments than Peterson saw. Clarence Stone, for example, argues that leaders of a city can choose to govern either by responding to the most dominant and self-interested powers (as some chapters in this volume argue that school boards do), or by responding to the needs and desires of local neighborhoods, small businesses, and nonelites (Stone 1989). The latter choice is electorally and substantively difficult, and it may fail. But the existence of this option implies that a school board can do more than most currently do to fight against resource and teaching inequities within its own district and to promote genuine democratic deliberation among the district’s residents.
Reformers, in short, are usually correct when they seek to work around or hollow out school boards in order to accomplish more equality or more democracy. But that judgment does not mean that boards cannot perform allocative or developmental functions well; nor does it let them off the hook with regard to some redistribution as well. As with everything else, the question is “compared to what?” – and the chapters in this book help us begin to find an answer.
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 My thanks for financial and institutional support to the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, the Mellon Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs of Harvard University.
 Briffault, in this volume, provides an excellent overview of the structure of school governance; he shows that if school boards were to be abolished, under current laws most of their tasks would devolve to the governments of the 50 states.
 www.census.gov/population/www/socdemo/hh-fam/cps2002.html: Table H2 (accessed Dec. 26,2003).
 By “superimposed,” I do not imply any historical periodization or causal argument; this paper cannot deal with the issue of how the structure of local districts came into being. I use “superimposed” only in an analytic sense.
 See Smith et al. forthcoming 2004) for a case in which local democratic control of school boards has recently led several to promote rather than oppose school desegregation plans. They remain, of course, limited to activity within their own district.
 Yet a different set of reformers seek to move schooling even further from the realm of local school boards. Libertarian supporters of vouchers for all students, proponents of public funding for parochial schools, supporters of home schooling, and supporters of contracting with private corporations to run public schools are examples. I do not consider these efforts in this paper, since they seldom seek to contribute either to local democracy or to educational equalization.
 My thanks to Luis Fraga for pointing out the usefulness of Peterson’s framework for the issues in this paper.
 According to some researchers, at least a third of the variation in students’ achievement is related to the state in which they live, although causation is hard to tease out in such a claim (Murray et al. 1998; National Center for Education Statistics 2000). Even so, that leaves a lot of scope for action within any state.
 See, for a good start, the chapter in this volume by Paul Teske and colleagues. They show that “many of the problems that charter schools are having with local school boards may prove to be a function of the weaknesses of local school boards as organizations in a turbulent political and administrative environment, rather than the result of monopolist providers wielding their power to stifle competition” (p. 12 of draft).