May 12, 2023

Should School Boards Run Schools?

It seems pretty obvious, doesn’t it?  I mean, that’s what school boards do.

But there may be no other governance that is currently attracting the attention school boards do–from questions surrounding curriculum to what books should be in libraries to how sex and gender education should be handled to what role parents have in the role of their children’s learning to whether traditional government schools should be the default option.  School boards are the epicenter of our American clash of worldviews and they probably should be, to be honest.  After all, we’re talking about our children, and what’s more important than that?

Harvard Kennedy School’s Taubman Center for State and Local Government is two sessions into a seven session virtual conference on whether schools should be run by local boards, and it’s probably not as clear cut as one might think.  On Thursday, May 11th, a three person panel debated the specific issue of whether school boards represent parents’ interests.  The three panelists were Hoover Institution’s Michael Hartney, (Virginia’s own) Middle Resolution’s Craig DiSesa, and Back to School PA’s Beth Ann Rosica.  At this point, almost all school boards are elected, so it seems self-evident that they represent parents and their interests, but it’s more complicated than that.

For one thing, public education has long possessed the institutional trust of the citizenry, so many parents have heretofore thought that they needn’t be terribly involved in order for their children to get a good education.  Maybe they’ve been involved in the PTA–and not in the Harper Valley fashion, mind–or the booster club, but probably not at the board level.  So school boards have become detached from immediate parental involvement and oversight, and said boards have gotten used to that autonomy.  In addition, school boards are responsible for the allocation of tax revenues, so they are ostensibly responsible to taxpayers in general, many of whom do not currently have children in the system.  And then there’s the issue of teachers’ unions, who are heavily involved in the election and tutelage of school board members.

So, while school boards do represent parents, they don’t represent only parents, and at this point, they don’t represent parents particularly well, as indicated by the manifold parent movements such as Moms for Liberty and Parents Defending Education.  And that takes us back to the original question: Should boards even run schools to begin with?

It’s a question is already sorting itself out.  School choice is now the horse out of the barn, and there’s no re-stabling her.  Laws like Georgia’s “Learning Pod Protection Act” are creating new categories of education models, and several states now have Education Savings Accounts in place that allow funding to follow the individual student.  The combination of those two developments means that education is now moving away from the zip code established, school board managed nearly all of us grew up with.  So the real question isn’t should school boards run schools?

It’s how long will they?

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