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Fordham’s Checker Finn: School Districts Ready to Go the Way of Horse & Buggy

It’s less than two weeks past my Education Policy Center friends’ series of school board candidate briefings. In other words, it’s time for education reform senior statesman Checker Finn to raise the challenging and provocative question for National Affairs: Are local school district boards and the 19th century governance structure they represent about ready to wither away and disappear?

Four years ago Education Policy Center director Pam Benigno wrote an article suggesting that online learning technologies were pushing school district boundaries into irrelevance. Of all places, the article was published in the Colorado Association of School Boards’ (now defunct) Prism magazine. (Sadly, no link is available.)

Finn fleshes out the increasing policy and governance dilemmas as online and blended learning begin to skyrocket in popularity:

But which government would write the ground rules for cyber-schooling and hold its vendors to account for their results? Who would set distance learning’s academic requirements and assessments? And who would pay for kids to attend them or — in an even more complicated scenario — to take separate courses from several of them, in order to assemble a curriculum tailored to each student? Districts? States? The federal government? Encumbered by the old LEA model, we have no governance mechanism well suited to answering these questions — certainly not local school boards with geographically bounded jurisdictions.

In a thoughtful follow-up, fellow Fordham-ite (and local school board member) Peter Meyer concedes that the “Beyond the School District” argument “makes sense.” His perspective is crucial, as he explains how he has seen firsthand the “tangled web” of bureaucratic dysfunction that afflicts many boards. I almost can envision many heads nodding as they read Meyer’s piece.

Unlike many other areas of education reform, this is one in which Colorado would not figure to be a leader. Why? Finn himself points out that Colorado is in a small, select group in which school districts “are enshrined in the state constitutions.” And with that comes some measure of more power to effect positive, effective change within each of our state’s 178 school districts. That might help explain why Douglas County is such a shining light in the area of choice-friendly policies.

On the other hand, the Centennial State not only has a strong and growing charter school sector but also pioneered the Innovation Schools Act that expanded the sphere of autonomous school-level leadership. It’s not about wishing away school boards to strengthen the hand of state or federal agencies but to bring the decision-making to an even more local level.

That’s exactly Finn’s point: School districts and boards are likely to fade away not because we need less local control but because we need more of it. Move beyond the segregated local property tax bases, and attach dollars to students based on need to choose their school (aka “weighted student funding”):

And it is with taxpayers and parents that the responsibility for educating our children should ultimately lie. The original principle behind our local governance system was that the people who had the most invested in their schools and the most to gain from them — as well as the best, most direct knowledge of whom those schools needed to serve and what services they needed to provide — should govern them. Over the past century and a half, we have drifted far away from that original aim — to the detriment of America’s students. For their benefit, and for the nation’s, we must now endeavor to make education local again.

It’s hard to get more local than the student and the parent.