School Boards: Watchdogs for Whom?

Mark Twain once quipped, “God made the idiot first, for practice. Then He made the school board.”
Nonetheless, according to the Center for Public Education (affiliated with the National School Boards Association, NSBA), school boards are “critical” for public education because, at least in theory, they look out for children, incorporating their community’s view of what students should know and be able to do; and, perhaps most importantly, the boards are accountable to that community, acting, in fact, as the “education watchdog” for it.
Well, especially in that last respect, too many school boards have succeeded only too well. And, that’s why they’ve been idiots.
Let’s recall that school boards are the quintessential manifestation of local sovereignty. The Bill of Rights’ 10th Amendment mandates that whatever powers The Constitution does not explicitly give to the federal government “are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.” Thus, our founding fathers insisted that education, among many other things, remain a local concern—the purview for states and community school boards. Indeed, the fathers’ greatest fear was an overreaching, dictatorial national government.
With good reason. Over the last decades, the Department of Education has deftly executed a less-than-subtle coup d’├ętat; using, for example, federal Title I funds to blackmail cash-starved states and school districts into implementing policies such as No Child Left Behind and the “voluntary” Common Core Standards.
This wouldn’t have been so catastrophic if those policies had been based upon evidence instead of ideology. The truth is that the Department of Education has promoted market-based “reforms” in defiance of research.
For example, in 1985, Stanford University professor Linda Darling-Hammond documented that those states that had adopted high-stakes standardized testing as a means of education reform all suffered a subsequent decline in student achievement. Nonetheless, the Bush Administration made such testing national policy. In 2009, the most comprehensive study of charter schools (CREDO) revealed that, despite their significant advantages, only 17% of charters outperformed their public school counterparts, while fully 37% lagged behind. Still, the Obama Administration promoted charters as the centerpiece of its education policy.
And all the while, most school boards, like obedient little lap dogs, have done the bidding of the federal government—and of the billionaires like Bill Gates who apparently direct it and the Department of Education (Policy Patrons, Harvard Press, 2016). School boards have bared their teeth only at hapless superintendents and schools that failed to post high test scores, or at least “Adequate Yearly Progress” toward them.
The result has been disastrous, documented most eloquently in Diane Ravich’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education (Basic Books, 2010); in Alfie Kohn’s scathing The Case Against Standardized Testing: Raising Scores, Ruining Schools (Heinemann, 2000); and in mine, Bloodletting: Why Education Reform is Killing America’s Schools (Stairway Press, 2014).
My former superintendent raged publicly against high stakes standardized testing, but then made it her obsession, implementing practice computer-based testing throughout the year, even for kindergarteners. She knew her job depended on impressing the school board with high test scores.
Principals did, too. Mine (I taught 4th grade at the time.) outlined a “balanced day” as one focused almost exclusively on math and Language Arts (since they were tested). History and art (since they were not) appeared at the bottom of her list, in parenthesis, to be taught “when we found the time.” Most of my colleagues rarely if ever did. The same narrowing of the curriculum occurred at district middle schools, too. Meanwhile, the school board banned most field trips, stressing how important it was to keep children in the classroom, in their seats, prepping for tests.
That school board was a fearsome watchdog. The trouble was, it served the federal government, not the local community (and certainly not the students).
Now we have a new secretary of education, billionaire Betsy DeVos, who seems intent on hastening the demise of public education. She definitely hopes to bring her embarrassing legacy of failed charter schools in Michigan (Arsen, 2015, Education Trust-Midwest, 2015) to every community in the nation.
So far, the National School Boards Association and many state counterparts (including New York’s and mine in California) have accepted charter school expansion with nary a whimper—this despite the mounting evidence of not only charter schools’ mixed performance (CREDO, 2013; NCEE, 2010;), but also their disastrous effect on school funding (Arsen, 2012; Lee-Allen, 2013), segregation (Finkenberg, 2010; Gulosino, 2011), and teacher retention (Stuit, 2010); which is not even to mention charter schools’ obvious violation of the separation of church and state.
The question is, Will the NSBA and local school boards remain so maddeningly docile? Will they enforce even DeVos’ machinations? Or will they return to their true masters, accept their sacred responsibility to local communities, and finally, rabidly protect public schools and the children who cower defenseless within them?
I agree that school boards could be critical, particularly in their role as watchdogs. If Mark Twain was right, however, if school boards are, in fact, little more than idiots, then Betsy DeVos will have her way with public education, just as previous secretaries of education have had theirs.
It is long past time for school board members and their associations to recall who elected them, and whom they ought to serve.

David Ellison teaches history in Union City, California.