Are school board associations sabotaging education reform?

May 31, 2012

Jason

By Ben Velderman
EAGnews.org

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – A provision in Illinois’ 2011 education reform law requires all newly elected school board members to receive training “in areas including education, labor law (and) financial oversight,” reports EdWeek.org.

Is that a smart new reform that will ensure better school governance? Or is it a clever way for teacher unions and their allies to teach new board members the “approved” way of leading a school district?

Cary District 26 (Illinois) school board member Chris Jenner believes it’s the latter.

Jenner says the mandate means all new school board members will receive training from the Illinois Association of School Boards, since it’s “the only game in town.” And in Jenner’s view, the school board association is little more than an appendage of the Education Establishment – comprised of school administrators, K-12 “experts” and teacher union leaders – that trains fresh board members in the stale thinking of the status quo.

“The IASB tells new board members, ‘This is how the status quo works, work within the system, and don’t think outside the box,’” Jenner tells EAGnews.org.

In other words, the IASB kicks the legs out from the bold, innovative education reforms that are essential to improving the state’s floundering public education system. That means the school board association is perpetuating problems instead of solving them.

If the IASB was serious about improving public education, it wouldn’t have chosen Roger Eddy as its new executive director, Jenner says.

Eddy has spent the past 31 years in public education – the last 15 as a school superintendent – and just retired as a part-time state legislator after nearly five full terms. In Jenner’s view, Eddy represents much of what’s wrong with public education.

“As a state representative, he has opposed school choice, received large campaign contributions from the Illinois Education Association and Illinois Federation of Teachers, sponsored bills to make public bodies less transparent, and to allow property tax hikes beyond the tax cap,” Jenner said in prepared remarks to his fellow board members earlier this year.

In addition, Eddy is on track to receive lavish taxpayer-funded pensions, as recently detailed by the Chicago Tribune.

In a matter of weeks, Eddy will head the organization that will train all new school board members how to do their jobs, as directed by state law.

Jenner says he’d “rather have no training at all.”

Trained not to ask questions

In theory, school board associations exist to strengthen public education. One of the ways they do that is by helping school officials stay on top of ever-changing education laws. For a fee, school board associations provide districts with sample policies that help school boards stay in full compliance with the law.

That’s pretty benign and noncontroversial.

But critics say school board associations too often veer outside of their narrow, nonpartisan mission and serve as mouthpieces for the teacher unions.

After being elected to the Springboro (Ohio) school board in 2010, Kelly Kohls attended an Ohio School Boards Association training session, and was disgusted with what board members were told.

“They told us, ‘You must do whatever your superintendent and treasurer tells you to do,’” Kohls says, adding that she speaks only for herself and not the rest of the board.

Kohls says OSBA’s trainers also told board members to refrain from visiting schools because it makes teachers nervous and disrupts the learning environment.

Basically, board members are trained to leave decisions to the experts and to not ask any questions, she says.

She was not impressed with the advice. Kohls ran for the school board to reform the district’s misplaced spending priorities, not to perpetuate them by playing nice with union representatives and deferring to status quo administrators.

According to Kohls, the OSBA promotes pro-teacher union policies to board members, and even publicly opposed recent school voucher legislation as “bad for education.”

The OSBA’s lobbying efforts and overall philosophy led Kohls to conclude that the organization is “an arm of the union.” The Springboro school board recently voted to cancel its membership with the OSBA.

“I’d like to see an organization that reminds school board members that they work for the community, not the district,” Kohls says.

‘Let your professionals do their work’

In just over a month, Peter Meyer will complete his five-year term as a member of the Hudson City (NY) school board. He also writes extensively about public education in his role as a senior policy analyst at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

Meyer has a mostly favorable view of the New York State School Boards Association, but is well aware of its deficiencies.

“I love them to death,” Meyer says of the NYSSBA’s employees. “They’re very helpful. They work very hard to answer questions. But they don’t do a very good job of helping school boards make out-of-the-box improvements.”

Meyer doesn’t see the association “as being in the clutches of the teachers unions,” but he does view them as inadvertently promoting the unions’ agenda.

“The association’s mantra is, ‘Don’t micromanage. Let your professionals do their work. Support your teachers and superintendents,’” Meyer says. “And the professionals’ job is to keep the staff happy.”

That requires administrators and superintendents to appease the staff’s labor leaders as much as possible, which results in perpetuating the status quo.

“It’s a vicious cycle,” he says.

The result, Meyer says, is that school officials end up “managing failure” instead of “managing improvement,” which would require making significant changes that inevitably upset the school employee unions.

“That’s why public education is in such deep doo-doo,” Meyer concludes.

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