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State Influence Over Local Boards of Education: Who’s in Charge Here?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Joe Jarret
June 3, 2022

Introduction:

Historically, local boards of education have been viewed as community stewards who are responsible for providing local children with a quality education that reflects the values and morals of the locality in which they serve. However, in recent years, many states have significantly expanded their roles in public education, and likewise expanded their power and influence over locally elected school boards. In many regions of the United States, this phenomenon has created a rift, and in many cases enmity, between state boards of education and local boards of education. Such tensions frequently trickle down to the local electorate, who have trouble grasping the concept that unappointed state officials wield a significant amount of authority over their elected officials.

Changing Times:

The ability of governors, state legislatures and state departments of education to substitute their values regarding the manner in which children will be educated for those held by local boards of education and the communities they serve is something local boards of education have historically viewed as the price of doing business. In most states, local school boards are considered to be political subdivisions of the state, and as such, subservient to them. However, with the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the teaching, or non-teaching, of critical race theory (CRT), the relationship between local school boards and the state produced an unprecedented series of strained relationships and in many cases, downright animus between the entities. In many cases, animus between the state and localities has precipitated into litigation in state and federal court.

Prior to Covid-19, and to the introduction of CRT in local curricula, the primary cause of such strained relationships usually centered around standardized testing, teacher tenure and licensure. In recent months, local school boards, and the parents of children they serve, have bristled over state induced mandatory mask mandates, school closures and curriculum development. Such local frustrations are exacerbated by several education organizations that suggest that it is far more important for state boards of education to work well with state legislators and governors than locally elected school board members. One education think tank encouraged state policymakers to bypass the local school board all together in favor of directly engaging community leaders and parents regarding the education of local children. Another education think tank suggested that state boards of education are the true voice of students and their parents, not local school boards.

It has been argued that state policymakers, in their efforts to reform public schools, deprive locally elected school boards, school superintendents and the communities they serve of the ability to manage their schools, and as such, deprive teachers of the ability to control their classrooms, ultimately depriving students of the ability to control their futures. It can be argued that such “one-size-fits-all” mandates fail to take into consideration the local culture, needs and educational aspirations of students. Further, there is a growing willingness amongst many state board of education members to deal directly with local school superintendents (the majority of which are directly employed by local school boards), without the knowledge or consent of the local board of education.

What’s To Be Done?

Presuming that strained relationships between state and local education stakeholders is purely the fault of the state would be disingenuous. Studies have shown that in many states, local school board members do not avail themselves of state department of education committee meetings, or state legislative education committee meetings. This is the case even in those states that encourage local school board members to attend such meetings and speak at them. Local school board members should also make an effort to build close relationships with their state legislative delegations. Legislators can affect and/or impact, positively or negatively, the legislature’s relationship with the school board, as well as influence school board policy and governance. In building such relationships, state stakeholders need to appreciate the negative effects of dealing directly with the community for which local school board members are responsible. At a minimum, all stakeholders should be welcome at the table.

Conclusion:

In an era where local boards of education are garnering increased attention from electorate and state education policymakers, the time is now for both civil and collaborative discourse between the two. Solid, productive relationships between state and local education stakeholders ultimately inure to the benefit of the education of our children.


Author: Dr. Joseph G. Jarret, MPA, J.D., Ph.D. is a former school board attorney and public administrator, who has served four different local government entities as chief legal counsel. He is a member of the faculty of the University of Tennessee’s Master of Public Policy and Administration program. He is a former United States Army Combat Arms Officer with service overseas. [email protected]

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