What is the primary duty of local school boards?
I recently asked this question of a seven-year Texas school board trustee. She answered: 1) to maximize student learning achievement, 2) to hire and supervise the superintendent, and 3) to set and manage the district budget. She followed up by emphasizing, “In that order,” because, she noted, “ nothing is as important as student learning.”
While these may sound like obvious goals, many school boards spend an inordinate amount of time on everything but student achievement, and often during a confusing array of closed and open meetings that may last an excruciating eight hours or more. Former TEA official, Kara Belew, now senior education policy advisor at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, notes that she spent nearly a year observing one board that never once addressed student achievement issues. School boards across the state may be touting spectacular sports stadiums and water parks, or worse, crafting “legislative agendas,” (for which the district often spends taxpayer dollars to lobby the state for more taxpayer dollars), but few boards are even talking about whether district students are learning reading and math.
One solution is to send school boards back to school.
Under current law, elected school board trustees must undergo training, but the state has permitted a number of outside groups to provide these trainings; the most prominent provider being the Texas Association of School Boards (TASB). Now, under Commissioner Mike Morath, the Texas Education Agency is offering an optional board training and certification through “Lone Star Governance,” a program that directs focus on one primary objective: Improving Student Outcomes.
Why is this important?
While there has been some good news for Texas students, such as the drop in the number of low-performing schools and increase in SAT/ACT pass rates, there’s still plenty of troubling news. At a recent education policy summit in Austin, Commissioner Morath shared that while there has been improvement, only about 43% of third-graders are meeting grade level in reading and math, around 50% of 8th graders are on target, and less than 20% of Texas students are attaining college-ready scores on the SAT/ACT. Clearly, there is still plenty of room for improvement.
As always, there is the perennial call for more spending, but state education funding has increased from $43.1 billion in 2007 to $60.6 billion in 2017. Also, at $11,349 in per-pupil spending, Texas hovers around the national average and still with better results than big spenders like New York and California.
In light of these hard numbers, many taxpayers and parents are calling for greater efficiency and purpose in education spending, including a focus on the issue that really matters: student learning.
Enter the TEA’s Lone Star Governance program.
During LSG’s two-day training, elected school board trustees and superintendents are taught to set an achievable number of publicly-stated goals and constraints that focus on improving student outcomes. Attendees learn to track progress, properly empower and constrain the superintendent, and to conduct regular evaluations of both the superintendent and the board itself. Boards are also encouraged to adopt policies that prevent conflicts of interest and promote transparency. And, to the great rejoicing of ISD observers everywhere, boards are given time-tracking tools, taught to minimize “closed” session meetings, and limit regular and public meetings to three times a month and two hours each.
The Lone Star Governance program is not the silver bullet that will fix everything in public education, but I do see cause for cautious optimism. Under the previously mentioned TASB trainings, newly-elected trustees are taught that the superintendent is the “quarterback,” who directs the activities of the board. This dynamic is alarmingly at odds with the original democratic structure in which school boards are answerable to both the voters and the state (since the state is the entity constitutionally responsible for a system of public education). In a properly aligned district, the superintendent is an empowered employee of the elected board, but not the ultimate authority. By equipping boards to find the happy medium between micromanaging and giving superintendent’s carte blanche, the LSG program restores an appropriately constitutional governing mindset.
Also, although TASB purports to share the same goals, trainers been known to convey a contemptuous attitude towards reformers, parents, and taxpayers, and to encourage boards to engage in lobbying the state legislature to protect the status quo and oppose reforms. Lone Star Governance actually mentions “empowering parents,” and seeks to return board focus to the students, or as Commissioner Morath calls them, the “5.5 million souls” in the Texas education system, and whether or not they are learning. Of the boards that have adopted student achievement as the primary goal, there seems to be an increased willingness to allow innovations such as in-district charters and parental choice programs that have been so successful in other parts of the country.
One cause for concern in the LSG materials is the heavy emphasis on board unity and teamwork. Not that unity and teamwork are bad things, but one problem with many school boards is that misguided notions of “unity” have sometimes stifled the kind of debate that leads to better outcomes. No trustee who questions the efficacy or cost of proposed policy should be labeled “rogue” or “maverick” as TASB has done.
School boards should focus on the real purpose of public education, which is not to maintain institutions or provide jobs, but to educate children. Real children, or as Commissioner Morath describes them, “souls.” That distinction makes all the difference in the world.