Last Thursday in a special session called by the New York governor, the state legislature voted to reauthorize mayoral control over New York City schools. For the last fifteen years, the city’s school chancellor has been appointed by the mayor—an arrangement unlike most school districts in the U.S., and one that would have ended at 12:01 a.m. Saturday morning without Legislative intervention.
Leading up to the deadline, New York mayor Bill De Blasio warned of “chaos” if control backslides to community school boards. His sentiments weren’t far off from those of Reed Hastings—the Netflix CEO, former president of the California State Board of Education, and major education donor—who recently declared school boards to be a significant impediment to U.S. education. There is an important question here for communities across the country that is larger than mayor De Blasio’s political hyperbole: should public school systems have management oversight from elected boards, or should district executives have more unilateral authority?
The answer lies in a truth as certain as death and taxes: elected bodies—such as school boards—are good for making public policy, but often terrible for managing organizations. When it comes to policymaking, the gridlock of democratic representation is a good safeguard against injustice and inequity. But when it comes to giving vision, focus and direction to an organization—such as a school district—gridlock undermines a leader’s ability to get things done and make progress beyond the status quo.
In any organization, the primary task of a leader—such as a school district superintendent—is to get people to work together in a systematic way. Research by Clayton Christensen shows that leaders have just a handful of tools they can draw on to elicit cooperation, depending on their circumstances.
Management through democratic consensus only works when board members largely agree on how the school system should be run. Unfortunately, this circumstance rarely exists outside of small and demographically homogeneous communities. Instead, the teachers, administrators, unions, taxpayers, parents, and politicians who back and elect board members often have divergent priorities and disagree strongly about how to improve education. Furthermore, all these constituent groups have different ideas of what will cause improvement—from more money to more computers, from better teachers to smaller class sizes, and many more.
In low-consensus circumstances, the only way for an organization to make progress beyond the status quo is to give strong leaders the authority to define a vision for change and then drive the organization in a new direction. But superintendents in districts with democratically-elected boards rarely get the power they need to make change happen. Inevitably, some constituent groups elect a few activist board members with a mandate to drive their own agendas. Once this happens, the divergent priorities of board members pull the district in multiple directions at once, making it nearly impossible for superintendents to prioritize their efforts or purposefully pursue any particular goal.
But how can the members of a community ensure that public schools meet their needs if not through publicly-elected school boards? One answer is to balance less direct public oversight through school boards with more educational options for the public to choose among. Rather than expecting all schools to be all things to all people, let different schools address the divergent needs and values of the public. Charter schools and vouchers are one way to do this, but an equally workable alternative is to create open enrollment policies among district schools and give school principals more autonomy over the visions and practices they institute on their campuses. If we move to school systems where voters do not voice their priorities and values through school boards, we need to give the public freedom to find schooling options that align with their needs.
For a real shot at improving education, school administrators cannot be bound to the divergent demands of multiple masters. School boards are valuable for high-level oversight, such as initiating ballot measures to increase property tax funding for schools and providing high-level school accountability. But for the sake of our students, if we want superintendents and principals to be able to manage their schools effectively, we need to get school boards out of the business of directly overseeing school operations.
Too many cooks in the kitchen spoil the pot, and too many governing trustees threaten to undermine the vision and focus of a school system.
Thomas Arnett is a senior research fellow studying education at the Clayton Christensen Institute and an elected member of the school board for the Morgan Hill Unified School District in Morgan Hill, California.