Guest Column

Why I’m Giving Up on School Boards

Professor, Department of Molecular Biology, Princeton University, Princeton, N.J. by LEE M. SILVER


For eight months last year, I lived with my family in the small southern French village of St. Jeannet (population 2,532), perched on the side of an enormous chunk of granite and fronted by a medieval wall to keep out invaders.

 

During our stay in St. Jeannet, my 10-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son both attended the local public school. Like other parents, we developed our closest friendships with parents of our children's friends. On the eve of our return to the United States, they threw a party in our honor. Included among the guests was my daughter's much-beloved 4th-grade teacher.

As happens so often in cocktail conversations between Europeans and Americans, comparisons were made between the way things are done there and here.

It was when I mentioned I had been elected to serve a term on the local school board in my hometown of Princeton, N.J., that bewilderment set in. The French pride themselves on knowing more about American politics than most Americans, and yet not a person at the party ever had heard of such a thing as a school board.

An Absurd Mandate
I struggled hard to explain. The school board was too far down the ladder to show up on their political radar screen. But no, it was not the same as their parent-teacher association, which helps make school a pleasant place to be and organizes holiday fêtes in St. Jeannet as in Princeton.

Instead, I told them, the board was an elected body of ordinary citizens with an absurdly heavy mandate to guide the local process of public education. Duties include overseeing the development of a math curriculum and coming up with a mission statement, both somehow tailored to the needs of the community. With more than 600 independently elected school boards in New Jersey alone, there are more than 600 math curricula and 600 mission statements in this one state.

My daughter's 4th-grade teacher was incredulous. "Isn't the mission of a public school obvious to everyone? Isn't math the same the world over? Shouldn't professional educators be making these decisions?" she asked.

"Yes, yes and yes," I responded.

"Then why did you want to be elected to the school board?" was the obvious rejoinder. Indeed, why would anyone want to sit on a school board?

My answer was simple enough. The foundation for my own successful career had come from a public school education in Philadelphia, and I felt obliged to make sure that children from all rungs of society in my adopted community had the same opportunities. As a member of the school board, I thought I could influence priorities toward the development of concrete, challenging curricula with strong standards and systems of accountability. But the reality of my experience was a different thing altogether.

With full board meetings, committee meetings, contract negotiation sessions and community outreach meetings, a conscientious board member could expect to be away from family two or three nights each week. During the open portion of each full board meeting, members of the audience felt entitled to speak for as long as they liked. And at the closed session, board members could spend hours debating what punishment should be meted out to a single high school student caught with marijuana in his pocket.

During my tenure, one task to which the board dedicated itself was the development of a new mission statement. Administrators were forced to spend countless evening hours visiting with different segments of the community, and the board spent hours more to compromise on a single-page document of homilies supposed to represent the mission of the Princeton schools.

Unnecessary Meddling
For all these hours, what does a board member receive in return? By voting one way or another, I was screamed at by adults and students. I alienated dear friends. I was unable to sing bedtime songs to my children, and my work productivity took a severe beating. Of course, there is no financial compensation.

No wonder that most members of the Princeton School Board choose not to run for a second term, and those most capable in the community choose not to run at all. The majority left at the table are "single-issue protectors" and those trying to foist a particular educational ideology on the system. In poor urban regions, it is more likely to be those who anticipate illicit financial gains through their ability to control lucrative contracts.

In truth, a school board has no need to meddle in most of the activities it takes upon itself. These decisions could and should be handled more effectively by salaried administrators. Like a corporate board, a school board should focus its efforts on hiring senior personnel and then leave them alone to do their job.

But it's still hard to believe we really need more than 15,000 school boards nationwide. Might there not be a more efficient, effective and fair way to provide education to a nation's children?

A Better Way
The answer is yes, and it's the approach taken by nearly every other industrialized country in the world. Indeed, almost universally, education is viewed as a national mandate with national funding, curricula, standards and evaluation.

So why does America cling to a medieval system of delivering public education? There's the same inertia--some would say arrogance--that has prevented America from joining the rest of the world in using the metric system. And millions of parents think they know how their children should be educated (even though most would never presume to know how their children should be medicated).

What would happen if all local school boards were abolished and, instead, a committee of professional educators were hired at the state level to oversee all districts within that state? The answer is crystal clear. There isn't a single thing school boards do well. On the contrary, what they do more often than not is to get in the way of school district administrators who are usually perfectly able to run the schools by themselves. Without school boards, schools and the children who attend them would be much better off.

Lee Silver is author of Remaking Eden: Cloning and Beyond in a Brave New World, published by Avon Books. He is a professor in the department of molecular biology at Princeton University, Princeton, N.J. 08544-1014. E-mail: lsilver@molbiol.princeton.edu