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Yes, Fordham, Colorado School Boards Matter; Let’s Encourage True Local Control

A long, long two-and-a-half years ago I shared with you my thoughts about school boards going the way of the horse and buggy. The article written by education reform senior statesman Checker Finn prompted me to weigh in:

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.

In the past several years, we’ve seen innovative changes come out of school boards not only in Douglas County and Denver, but also in Falcon 49 and now Jefferson County. Dougco and Falcon leaders particularly have advanced the cause of shifting power even more locally, to parents and schools, with a focus on greater choice and autonomy.

Back in 2011 I thought Colorado might be an outlier to Fordham president Finn’s prediction that school boards were on track to wither away. Today I’m thinking, that at least on the main point, we might prove less exceptional to the findings of a new Fordham report titled Does School Board Leadership Matter? Using 900 responses from a 2009 survey of school board members, the report’s answer seems to be that Yes, elected leadership can have some impact on student achievement.

Rick Hess generally concurs with the conclusion, noting that the problem many local boards have in governing is more “symptom” than “disease.” Without directly saying so, he seems to encourage the approach taken in Dougco and Falcon that makes decisions more local rather than having the conceit that a school board has all the solutions.

Anyway, here are the Fordham report’s four major findings:

  1. “Board members, by and large, possess accurate information about their districts and adopt work practices that are generally similar across districts. But there is little consensus about which goals should be central.” The divergence of goals seems to be as wide as the philosophies you can imagine about board members.
  2. “Districts that are more successful academically have board members who assign high priority to improving student learning.” But which came first — chicken or egg — is hard to tell, they say.
  3. “Political moderates tend to be more informed than liberals and conservatives when it comes to money matters; educators and former educators are less informed.” Someone could write a whole blog post about this point alone, seeing as how the finding is based on respondents’ self-identification. Another interesting finding is that former educators stand out as being less knowledgeable about a district’s financial matters.
  4. “At-large, on-cycle elections are associated with districts that beat the odds.” One easy legal change Colorado could make to support the work of reform and ultimately to help students would be to align school board elections with the even year general elections, rather than the current odd-year formulation. According to the Fordham authors, districts also would benefit by selecting their members at large, rather than from different geographic regions (which might help save face for some local unions, too).

For now, I’m still willing to put some hope into choosing the right leaders for Colorado school boards who can focus on improving achievement, sensible use of resources, and trusting even more local decisions whenever possible.