Save the School Boards!by Miriam Thompson and Julie Thompson Keane
The mayor, his predecessor, and some education critics want to get rid of the community school boards. They want to lay the blame for declining test scores, declining education standards, and deteriorating physical plants at the feet of the community school boards. But school boards do not get adequate resources to do their jobs. School boards are often treated by the power structures in the city with the same disdain as the children who attend their schools. Is it any wonder that too many school boards cannot attract people with stature and vision who could make a real difference in the education of public school children? While some focus on the few boards that have been used as patronage mills for politicians and other unscrupulous characters, all of us fail to challenge the larger political economic processes that deprive New York City children of their fair share of resources. It isn’t the school boards that deny children an adequate education. Several board members were part of the recent lawsuit fighting against the state for fiscal equity in the distribution of resources (see Brooklyn Rail, October/November, 2001). In January 2001, a state Supreme Court judge ruled for the children of New York City. Again, it wasn’t the school boards that appealed that decision. It was none other than the highest officer in the state—Governor George Pataki.
We need to remind ourselves why the community school boards came into existence over 30 years ago. Not only are critics scapegoating school boards, but they are also trying to ignore history. Before the great struggle for community control of schools in the 1960s, the Board of Education exercised almost tyrannical control of education in New York City. It was totally unresponsive to the needs of an increasingly non-white school population. The struggles for community control and the development of community boards were a response to a system whose decision-makers were overwhelmingly white—the teachers unions, the principals, the Board of Education, and the elected officials.
At the time, elected officials were terrified of giving real power over an essential public institution to communities of color whose dream was community control of schools. The compromise was decentralization and the creation of the 32 community school districts. The elected community board in each district has jurisdiction over the elementary and junior high schools. These boards were held responsible for overturning years of neglect, discrimination, and disenfranchisement, but were never given the adequate resources to perform this Herculean task. Nor could they have been held accountable for larger societal problems, most notably poverty and racism.
The well-being of public school students should be central to the community school board debate. To confirm students’ central role requires more financial support, more public space, and more participation of the entire community—not restricted space with more centralized control and continued debilitating budget cuts. Our children’s education must be the priority of every resident in every neighborhood in every community. We should be role models for our children. They should know that they are a priority. This means that we have to participate in school governance to ensure that effective teaching and learning occur in every classroom. This means we have to fight for education dollars. If you get rid of the school boards, then what? The mayor wants to run the school system. Can we depend on one man to fight for our children? Does he think he can run the public schools from his office—with one million students and over 125,000 teachers, supervisors, and support personnel? Is he going to single-handedly represent every community in this wildly diverse city? Who will give voice to the rich talents, ideas, and concerns of these communities?
We believe that children will become better citizens if they see us practice democracy. Right now the structure of the community school board does not adequately provide a serious space for dialogue, debate, democratic decision-making, and thoughtful participation. Community school boards should reach out to engage active involvement in the education of public school children. The result of these new relationships will be more venues for interaction and an independent body to search and provide qualified candidates for the school board, unencumbered by any interest other than the well-being of school children. The community boards need to receive adequate resources and tools to effectively execute their responsibilities. School board members need training in governance and pedagogy. And school boards need to be more prominent in the political process. Under the present system, the schedule of school board elections ensures that they are practically invisible. The schedule should be aligned with general elections so that the students’ issues and needs are given the prominence they deserve.
Evaluating school board members and the structure of community school boards may set an example for a larger examination of the deteriorating state of other political institutions central to our democracy. School boards, too often, reflect a culture of competition and power rather than cooperation and collaboration. Like many of our democratic institutions, the system of community school boards needs repair. But, as elsewhere, we don’t throw out democracy—we fix it!
Miriam Thompson is Director of Special Projects, Office of Worker Education, Queens CollegeJulie Thompson Keane
Julie Thompson Keane is Assistant Project Director, Center for Children and Technology. They thank Noreen Connell, Education Priorities Panel, and Ellen Raider, International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution, for their contributions to opinion piece.