The Problem with “School Boards are the Problem”

By 08/09/2010

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For two weeks now I’ve been meaning to write about this provocative Washington Post column by Montgomery County (MD) school board member Laura Berthiaume. I could blame my procrastination on other pressing matters but, in the heart of the summer doldrums, that would be a dodge.

The truth is that her Op-Ed challenges some of my basic assumptions about school boards, in particular that they are one of the big problems in education. She writes:

Recently, The Post has thrown about allegations that board members who want to hang on to their offices are willing to approve unaffordable budgets and gold-plated benefits simply to retain favor with the [local teachers union].

So far so good; that story line certainly sounds plausible to me. And not just in Montgomery County. After all, it’s the unions who play an enormous role in vetting candidates, providing favored ones with campaign funds, and making sure their members turn out to vote in the off-cycle school board elections. And voila, as Berthiaume admits, “it is true that all current board members have gotten their seats with some level of union blessing.” But she continues:

The person who has the coziest relationship with the union leadership is in fact the superintendent. So, when the union felt threatened by an impending state action more tightly linking teacher evaluations to student performance, an “agreement” between MCPS and the unions was announced in The Post on April 21 — and all but one board member found out about it that same morning, in the newspaper.


In the balance of power between the board of education and the bureaucracy, the superintendent and his staff hold all the cards. They outwit, outlast and outplay. In my experience, the board actually has little to no impact on union contract negotiations: The superintendent and his staff negotiate the contracts. Even if there ever were actual board opposition, it would be met with a fierce, resolute wall of angry staff.

Does this line throw you off balance, like it does me? The typical narrative of reformers is that the union elects the school board, the school board turns around and hands out favors to the union, and the heroic change-agent superintendent is blocked at every turn. We view school boards as impediments to reform. But what if they are simply impotent? Irrelevant? Incapable of promoting or defeating reform? If the true power lies with the bureaucrats, what does that imply for accountability?

I once heard Netflix founder and uber-school-reformer Reed Hastings say that “the only thing worse than a regulated monopoly is an unregulated monopoly.” If America’s school boards truly are powerless, that sounds like what we’ve got in communities all around the country.

What do you think? Share your thoughts below.

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