A diminished role for school committees

Ed reform has put unhealthy squeeze on local boards

Twenty years ago the Massachusetts Education Reform Act (MERA) restructured K-12 public education. Among the many changes – Chapter 70 funding, charter schools, learning standards, curriculum frameworks, and more – was a redesign of the school committee-superintendent relationship. From a reform perspective, school committees would no longer meddle in the management of district affairs. Adopting a business model, the committee would be akin to a corporate board, focusing on policy matters, while the superintendent would be the CEO, responsible for the management of the district. From this policy vantage point, school committees could help drive education reform. It was an interesting design, but how has it worked out?

My response from a school committee perspective: a few successes, but an overall diminished role for school committees. MERA did reduce the management role of committees, particularly with respect to hiring. This was an important step in the new governance model. There is still a tendency to get into the details given the committee’s constitutional fiduciary responsibility in finance matters and with collective bargaining, but committees seem inclined to leave day-to-day management to the superintendent.

On the policy side of the equation, however, school committees have not fared well. In short order, the policy space envisioned by MERA was filled largely by state and federal officials. State-designed learning standards, curriculum frameworks, and then MCAS became the law of the land. Regulations regarding specific populations, like special education and English language learners, provided an important push towards equity, but also limited local discretion. With No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2002, federal officials also pushed into the policy space around testing, teacher qualifications, and other important areas. These trends continued. Recent state legislation strengthened state accountability systems and other provisions for state involvement in district affairs, and federal waivers of NCLB heightened the federal role. There isn’t much left for school committees.

There are other handicaps as well. School committees face several key challenges to be effective organizations in the policy world. First, they need timely and high-quality information to support decision making, yet that often is not the case. Most important is information on the performance of the district. Student test results and the annual budget are prime information tools, but sifting and winnowing through these materials is a challenge. Sometimes the yardstick is comparing to previous years, other times we look for comparable communities. Either approach faces difficulties as changes in student assessment instruments or budget formats can make year-to-year comparisons problematic, and identifying comparable districts raises a host of methodological issues.

Furthermore, the committee needs access to information independent of the superintendent. This isn’t a criticism of superintendents. Rather, it’s a recognition that the oversight and policy responsibilities of the school committee are best served when it has information from multiple sources. As a good journalist or researcher will attest, multiple perspectives are critical for better understanding an issue or topic at hand. Lacking independent information, school committees run the risk of being “captured” by their own superintendent.

Independent information can come from a variety of sources. For example, at a recent annual meeting of the National School Boards Association, I watched six members of a Connecticut school board caucus as they planned their day, ensuring that each attended panels and presentations relevant to their district. The TELLS teacher survey – a climate survey conducted every two years – is another example of independent information. Some committees use this data to help inform their policy role, while others give it little consideration, to the extent they know it exists.

Independent information also can come from within the school community. As school committee members we listen and talk to parents, teachers, and other stakeholders. While useful and important, the danger is policymaking by anecdote. A comment by the union president or a disgruntled parent starts to drive the policy agenda. To go beyond anecdotes, we need broader and more comprehensive information sources as well, like an independent assessment of district performance, to help guide our policy thinking. In Watertown, for example, we recently developed a goals measurement project to track progress in meeting districtwide goals. Other districts have followed a similar path. It takes a deliberate, often time-consuming, effort to develop such information sources.

Second, school committees face a communications handicap. Learning organizations are reflective and adaptive as they collectively share and learn from their experiences. This is not the typical school committee. As elected bodies operating under state open meetings law requirements, we are restricted significantly in how we can communicate among ourselves. Basically, a majority of members cannot discuss or otherwise communicate outside of a posted, public meeting on any substantive educational issue. This includes phone calls and conversations. Applied to a three-person subcommittee – in which two members constitute a quorum – no conversations outside a public meeting are allowed on any issue that is relevant to the subcommittee.

Such rules pose significant obstacles to learning and developing a stronger policy role. Imagine in your own organization if conversations among a majority of employees were limited to specific times in a public setting, perhaps only at lunch, or even prohibited in some small-group contexts. The exchange of ideas and benefits of collaboration are sharply truncated. As members, we are often isolated, and the organization pays the price. Without a doubt, the goal of the open meetings law to promote public deliberation is essential to democratic accountability, but policymakers struggle to balance that with the need for organizational learning. Finding this balance would involve conversations with state legislators in a review of the open meetings law, a challenging task in the best of times.

A third handicap is endemic to elected organizations. Like most elected bodies, school committees often contend with differences of opinion among their members that can diminish their collective capacity. Sometimes these differences can be navigated with success, as when members debate different parts of the budget and reach a compromise position. However, other times it is more difficult, as when different opinions on the fundamental role of the committee split the body. For example, are we elected solely as advocates for the schools, or should we consider broader town interests and issues? Sometimes the superintendent is the pivot point. Should we be supporters and cheerleaders for the superintendent, or should we provide a more critical role, raising questions about the superintendent’s initiatives? No easy answers here. Each member will chart a path consistent with his or her own values and perspective, but this leaves a difficult challenge for bridging these differences for a coherent policy role.

Meet the Author

John Portz

Professor of Political Science, Northeastern University
Can school committees play a meaningful policy role? Some can, but for many, this is a tall order. We need a renewed focus on building effective school committees in the context of today’s federal and state roles in education. Capacity-building support provided by the Massachusetts Association of School Committees and the recently-formed Massachusetts Education Partnership are important steps, but we also need a review of the open meetings law and a concerted effort to help committees develop diverse information sources. In broad terms, we need to revisit the policy role envisioned by the 1993 Education Reform Act while preserving the important opportunities for civic engagement provided by committees. Building this political and institutional capacity is hard work, but it is essential if school committees are to live up to the policy role envisioned for them 20 years ago.

John Portz is a member of the Watertown School Committee and a professor of political science at Northeastern University.