By Dave Kopel, Tom Tancredo
“First God created idiots,” wrote Mark Twain. “That was for practice. Then he created school boards.” Is it time to undo God’s work, and abolish district school boards? Yes, says John Evans, an at-large member of the Colorado Board of Education. The state should just give education funding directly to the local schools, instead of passing the money through a school district bureaucracy.
The suggestion spurred a sharp retort from the Colorado Association of School Boards. Yet the idea of dispensing with school boards appears to be catching on. Arizona’s State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Lisa Graham, has made a similar proposal.
According to scholars John Chubb and Terry Moe of the liberal Brookings Institute, school boards are a major obstacle to education reform. Because of the heavy spending and strong volunteer effort of the teachers’ union (the Colorado Education Association), school boards tend to be controlled by members who owe their job to the union.
For instance, in the last school board elections in Jefferson County, the CEA spent over sixty thousand dollars on its candidates, while candidates opposed by the CEA had to run a county-wide race with only five thousand dollars.
There’s nothing wrong with the CEA spending its money on politics, and it would a free speech infringement to attempt to drive the CEA out of politics through campaign spending limitations. But the CEA’s ability to control school boards becomes problematic when union needs clash with student needs–such as when rigid rules make it nearly impossible to fire incompetent teachers.
Also, there is the problem of bureaucratic centralization. There is no way that a board of from five to seven individuals – no matter how brilliant and altruistic – could possibly create the best educational experience for each and every child in their district.
A case in point would be the Jefferson and Denver County School Districts. Together these two districts “serve” almost a quarter of the entire school population in the state. That means that a total of 12 people set the conditions to hire all the teachers, build all the buildings, determine the curriculum and spend all the tax dollars for the education of 140,000 children.
When all schools in a large school district have to follow the same policy set by a single board, parents and students don’t get the kind of education they want. For example, the current school board race in Littleton involves a huge fight between advocates of academic fundamentals and advocates of Outcome Based Education. In Boulder, there’s a civil war pitting the school board majority, which opposes advanced classes for advanced students in junior high, against insurgents who want kids to be able to progress as fast as they can go. Whoever wins the election, a large number of parents and students lose, since the whole district gets run by a philosophy they don’t like.
Some boards recognize they must at least pay lip service to the demands for decentralization, but in no case has any board actually devolved real power to the parents and faculty of a local school. Even in Denver’s highly touted Collaborative Decision Making, no school team can contract out for education services or hire and fire teachers or control most of the spending in the school.
Despite Mark Twain’s quip, school boards used to get a lot more respect about a century ago. Then, school districts were much smaller, and school boards really were an instrument of democratic, community involvement in the schools.
But now, the school boards of the huge, consolidated school districts take power away from local communities. In the humongous Jefferson County School District, for instance, why should voters in Lakewood be electing somebody who will govern the public schools in Bailey? (And vice versa.)
The Colorado Association of School Boards and its legislative allies have raised three main objections to the proposal for giving state school funds directly to local schools.
First, the state might lose federal education funding, since certain federal grants must be given to school boards, and not to schools. True, but federal education funding may soon shift to a less-restrictive block grant program. In any case, the cost of complying with federal mandates and paperwork eats up most of the benefits of federal support.
Second, large, centrally-governed school districts supposedly create economies of scale. CASB’s Executive Director compared school districts to Wal-Mart, with its large purchasing power. But of course just being big isn’t the same as being efficient. Wal-Mart has competitors, while school boards have a quasi-monopoly. If centralized control always produced economies of scale, the Soviet Union would have been the richest country in the world.
Besides, independently owned business can and do compete with Wal-Mart by forming voluntary purchasing cooperatives. Without school boards, individual schools could work together to buy desks and chalk in bulk. Without school boards, principals of individual schools could spend money to repair the gymnasium–without having to send reams of paper to school district office begging for permission.
Besides, local schools would have more money, since state aid wouldn’t be siphoned off by an intermediary bureaucracy.
Finally, CASB points out that Article IX of the Colorado Constitution presumes that state aid to education will be funneled through school boards, and that school districts will be the main revenue raisers of local property taxes. These objections are valid. Full abolition of school districts would probably require a Constitutional amendment approved by the Colorado voters.
Even without a Constitutional amendment, the Colorado Constitution gives the legislature the authority to create school districts of a “convenient” size. The legislature could therefore split the monster school districts into much smaller pieces that comprise genuine communities (e.g. the Park Hill neighborhood in Denver, the city of Trinidad, and so forth).
Ask yourself. If you were charged with the responsibility of creating an education system and if you had no model on which you could rely, would you design the present system? Would you give all the resources to a few people? Would you consider the possibility that allowing schools to control the economic resources available to them would encourage more effective allocations of those resources–and better learning?
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