School boards: Democratic ideal or a troubled anachronism?

Resolved: "School boards should be abolished."

This was the subject of a high school-style debate recently held at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. Taking on the finer points were some prominent names in the world of education. It's a decades-old question. And one that lesser-known orators across the country are grappling with as well.

Both those who champion public school boards and those in favor of abolishing them argue passionately that schools must maintain a high standard of cost-effective education. And they must be accountable to taxpayers, students, and families.

But are school boards the best body for achieving these goals?

Chester Finn resoundingly replied "no." From behind a podium in Harvard's Taubman Building, the Fordham Foundation president called school boards the worst kind of anachronism. With wit and fervor, he likened them to "middle management."

They are ripe for corruption, a springboard for aspiring politicians, and a venue for disgruntled former school employees to air dirty laundry, he said.

And while Mr. Finn did concede that there might be "pastoral towns and leafy suburbs somewhere where the platonic ideal of the elected local school board flourishes," he was hard-pressed to say where.

Finn concluded that most of the 15,000 school boards in the US are "worse than a dinosaur, they are more like an education sinkhole."

Bad school boards do exist, conceded Anne Bryant, executive director of the National School Board Association. But, "if the state legislature acts stupid," she fired back at Finn, "do we talk about replacing legislatures?"

Ms. Bryant rose to the challenge. For 300 years, she said that school boards have played a crucial role in all aspects of policy: from setting district goals to hearing the concerns of the community.

The arguments continued, back and forth, with Lisa Graham Keegan of the Education Leaders Council and Adam Urbanski, vice president of the American Federation of Teachers weighing in.

The answer? Debaters suggested everything from better member training to charter schools, which would do away with the need altogether.

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