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The End of Geography (and School Boards?) in Education Governance

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Of the thirteen papers presented at Fordham's Rethinking Education Governance for the 21st Century symposium last December, one that had particular resonance for me was Rick Hess and Olivia Meeks' analysis of the school district dilemma.

We have nearly 14,000 of them in this country and they control billions of dollars worth of taxpayer money. Lots of people hate them; many believe that they are a large part our education system's deterioration. But as Gene Maeroff writes, in his brilliant new book, School Boards in America: A Flawed Exercise in Democracy, "of all the institutions in the country with jurisdiction over large chunks of money and the ability to influence the nation's future, boards of education are surely the most obscure and least understood." (I am trying to make them less obscure by soliciting essays from reform-minded school board members about their experiences in the trenches. See here.)

Hess and Meeks do a brilliant job of taking us by the hand and leading us gently through the weeds of school board governance -- it's a fascinating history -- and the foothills of the popular alternative of mayoral control, leading us to a mountain top, from where we can see, in the distance, a cloud of sorts, an education system where we "organize schooling around function rather than geography." It's an amazing view -- and it doesn't have to include school boards, not because they are bad, but because they will be mostly irrelevant.

Our current problem, Hess and Meeks argue, is that "every school district is asked to devise ways to meet every need of every single child in a given area," and it doesn't work. Districts are simply not capable of "build[ing] expertise in a vast number of specialties and services" or "juggl[ing] a vast array of demands [that] require them to become the employers of nearly all educators in a given community."

The two education researchers are too practical to suggest the end of geography (i.e. all virtual all the time), but they understand that current school district impotence is a symptom of a problem, not its cause. Importantly, their analysis of the causes also makes them doubtful that suggested alternatives to school boards, like mayoral control, move us in the right direction. They write:

[T]he critiques voiced by those ready to abolish or overhaul boards seemingly imply tacit approval of the antiquated, geographically configured school district itself. Instead of addressing the fact that the ship itself is taking on water, those pursuing governance reforms have focused on who should be at the helm. While a good captain is undoubtedly preferred to a bad captain, reformers serious about righting the ship must be ready to address the bigger challenges.

The chances that current suggestions for fixes -- such as making board elections more relevant and reducing the influence of unions in them, or mayoral control -- "will be the bearers of revolutionary change in governance are," say the authors, "slim, at best." The only reasonable way of governing 21st century schools is by freeing them of place-based constraints.

Thus, you would have education providers -- each offering their own set of specialties and services -- roaming the country (virtually or otherwise), providing their services directly to schools or sets of schools. We're stuck with a department store model of education when Amazon may be showing us the future:

A glance at catalogues from the early 1900s shows the one-stop-shop business mentality of the era. The Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalogue, for instance, features firearms, baby carriages, jewelry, saddles, and even eyeglasses with a self-test for ― old sight, near sight, and astigmatism. That's no longer the way providers in most sectors are organized....

Today we push thousands of districts to embrace and implement unwanted programs. If the private sector operated in this fashion, Amazon.com would have restricted its clientele to residents of Washington state, while would-be imitators from across the country flocked in to learn its secrets and then return home to emulate them....

Instead of encouraging school districts to emulate successful charter management organizations, for instance, policymakers might focus on enabling and encouraging CMOs like KIPP to open schools more readily in order to satisfy local demand.

Hess and Meeks even foresee the possibility of "competing boards" in a given locale; or "empower[ing] non-profit or for-profit networks that might contract directly with a state" to provide educational services. Or, a third approach "is to do away with districts altogether. One could imagine states turning every school into a charter school."

I emailed Rick over the recent holiday and he was gracious enough to elaborate on his ideas in a couple of emails. "The disease is really twofold," he explained. "Progressive bureaucracy and the perils of place-based governance." The latter, he says, "prohibits specialization, makes it enormously tough to recruit like-minded professional staff or to cater to families who have shared concerns and needs."

A "portfolio management" governance system that could be part of the future, writes Rick, would, for instance, "allow districts to work with focused organizations to each recruit the professional who can serve the families for whom its approach makes sense." (Lest one think this is just another cockamamie idea of the radical right, see the work that Paul Hill and his Center on Reinventing Public Education are doing.)

The digital revolution, which is just now beginning, is clearly part of the new education world that Hess and Meeks see on the near horizon. Certainly, the World Wide Web opens amazing opportunities of organizing education around function not geography.

"The giant challenge" here, as Rick explained in his email, is that we have "no assurance that these providers will cover everywhere, and, as with utilities, we have a desire to see schooling available everywhere. One solution is the gradual expansion of virtual options. But the other is having localities play a role in attracting providers, coordinating them, or providing schools if no one else wants to."

He thinks the portfolio approach is "the BIG STRETCH in today's thinking about governance," but it's also the one he believes is "the minimum" that needs to be done to accomplish the shift to an education governance system that is truly in line with the necessities of the 21st century.