July/August 2014

Ben Schwarm is deputy executive director and head of governmental relations for IASB. The basis for this article was the subject of two panel presentations at the 2014 NSBA Conference.

If you pay any attention at all to trending education issues or education legislation in our State, you will have noticed a plethora of “education reforms” that have been proposed that seem to chip away at the authority of the locally elected school board. Charter schools that are approved by parties other than the local school board, private school vouchers, State or mayoral take-over of local school districts, curricular mandates, etc. seem to be ever-present reminders that people or organizations outside of your community are ready to “improve” your local school district.

It may (or may not) comfort you to know that Illinois is not the only state that is experiencing this phenomenon. When the legislative staff from the Illinois Association of School Boards meet with their counterparts from other state school board associations, the common themes are immediately obvious. Partly the “misery loves company” effect, and partly because of the important function of sharing information, these meetings have been abundantly beneficial as we learn about issues, trends, and challenges faced by school boards in other states.

A few years ago David Little, director of legislative affairs for the New York State School Board Association (NYSSBA), approached a few of us and asked if we were interested in serving on a panel at the annual conference of NSBA to discuss the challenges of school boards in our states. For diversity and geographical balance, we covered the four corners – and the middle – of the USA: David Little from New York, Leanne Winner from North Carolina, Janice Palmer from Arizona, Marie Sullivan from Washington (state), and myself.

Originally titled “Local Control in an Age of Uniformity”, we presented panels at the NSBA conference and at the NYSSBA annual state conference. One thing we had noticed at these panels was that the audiences were very motivated and wanted to participate, ask questions, and make comments. The question and answer periods were always too brief.

In preparation for the 2014 NSBA annual conference, we devised a double panel that, in the first session – “Change is Good, You Go First” – covered the national trending issues in education legislation and how these could be challenges to the local school board. The second session – “Saving the Great American School Board” – was devoted to audience participation through break-out panels which included brainstorming sessions on how to combat education proposals that would adversely affect the local school board and district.

The panels covered the historical context of public education and the local school board; examined organizations that, from a national level, pushed proposals down to the state level (National Governors’ Association, National Conference of State Legislators, American Legislative Exchange Council); and other “think tanks” and “reform groups” that have education agendas such as the Students First organization, Stand for Children, and the Gates Foundation.

Throughout our discussions, panelists shared their experiences with education proposals in their respective states. The variances of how each of the proposals manifested themselves in each state were explored, highlighting the diversity in culture, politics, and educational policy from region to region in our country. Some state’s charter school provisions, for example, allow for any organization or university to commission a charter school, whereas in Illinois the local school board is the main chartering agent. Some have very liberal laws regarding private school vouchers while Illinois has been successful in defeating voucher legislation. How access to local property taxes are limited to school districts also greatly varies from state to state.

The main focus of these panel(s) was not so much a study in educational doctrine or academic achievement, but celebrating the democratic principle of the locally elected school board.

Having the members of the governing body of a public school district come from the community, with a stake in that community, is the bedrock of our public school system in Illinois. The school board will hire an educational professional to administer day-to-day operations of the district. But lay leaders – voluntary and elected – truly allow the school board to reflect the standards, cultures, and interests of the community. School boards, and school board associations, must continue to fight to maintain this valued process.

Hopefully, audience members attending these panels learned that, in some sense, this basic tenet of school governance has been under a barrage of attacks at the federal and state levels. Congress, the state legislature, and outside organizations have been finding success in varying degrees across the country in breaching the local control of public schools. We were very encouraged to hear from the audience that there is strong resolve on the part of school board members to fight back.