Provide greater local control to elected school boards

School Boards in Today’s Educational Times

Goal #7 – Restore control to locally-elected school boards

Education is expensive. Many sources estimate that the total money spent annually on education in the United States is well over $1 trillion!  Less than 15% of these funds are estimated to come from the Federal government; the remainder of these funds comes from State, local, and private sources.  This 85% figure demonstrates the primary responsibility for education rests at the State and local level.  This fact has been a reason for criticism of Federal oversight and regulations related to education when such a small percentage (15%) of education funding comes from the Federal government.

 Historically, schools have been overseen by local citizens.  Rough estimates indicate that the United States has more than 15,000 school boards with at least 90,000 locally-elected members on these boards.  The Indiana School Boards Association, with a membership of 288 public school corporations and more than 1,600 individual board members, is the leading advocate for school boards across the State.

 Beginning in the 1980’s, State governments began to influence public education by increasing their direct control over local schools through funding changes, regulations, policies, and mandates (Odden & Picus, 2008).  Contradicting the actions of State legislatures which removed power from locally-elected boards, is research that indicates the levels of satisfaction for local school boards has increased with “strong support for more local government influence in education” in the last decade (Jacobsen & Saultz, 2012).  Additional research shows the “public sees ways that all three levels should be involved in education policy. The public often indicates a preference for local control.”  Evidence indicates that individual schools demonstrate improvement when they “are given more responsibility, not less” (Kirst, 1988).

 In Indiana, the last decade has brought a complete erosion of local control for public schools.  Each year, State legislative leaders have approved legislation to bring greater regulation, greater control, and greater scrutiny of public schools under the shiny banner of improvement and “school reform”.  Examples of State overreach are profound and prolific.  While no specific point in time heralded this shift in power during the past decade, a slow, methodical, and intentional effort to lessen the authority of locally-elected school boards has occurred.  Some examples, both big and small, follow.

 Five years ago (2011), the Indiana State Legislature passed legislation on collective bargaining between school districts and local bargaining units.  The new collective bargaining law severely limited what could be bargained with local teachers and identified specific items that could not be bargained.  Items forbidden to be negotiated locally with teachers include the hours they work and the dates they work. 

 Also, during this time, the State legislators decided they would be better prepared to determine how to compensate teachers than local school districts and their elected boards.  This included a new State requirement that compensation be based, in part, on State test data for many teachers.  Sadly, after several years, the State still has not provided a good and fair test; thus, placing a requirement to base compensation of teachers on faulty tests.  Second, the State determined that the amount of increased compensation given to teachers in the form of raises and stipends must be limited as it relates to a teacher’s own education.  That's right.  The State limited the amount of compensation as a percent of available monies that could be based on further education (and we are in the education business).  To take this one step further, the IEERB (Indiana Education Employment Relations Board), with a majority of members appointed by the current Governor, determined that raises related to education could be given ONLY the year in which the education was earned. 

 With this nonsensical rule, if a teacher finishes a masters in mathematics in the spring of 2016 and no money is available for raises in the fall of 2016, this educational attainment CANNOT be rewarded with additional compensation in the fall of 2017.  This creates the absurdly silly practice of teachers needing to time their degree attainment in accordance with when a district will likely have money for raises.  Many State leaders point fingers between various groups, boards, offices, and chambers, but the fact remains that none of these rules existed when locally-elected Boards approved these decisions based on agreements between school administrators and teachers.

 The State takeover of local education can be seen most clearly with the movement of general fund revenues for public schools to the State general fund.  This means that for the first time in Indiana history, a significant amount of money for public education began to be funded at the State level; funding that once came primarily from local property taxes.  With this tax shift came a power shift with new funding formulas; since this power shift, this funding has not kept up with inflation, and an additional fiscal burden for public schools associated with school choice scholarships (i.e. "vouchers") has emerged. 

 Many Hoosiers have become all-too-familiar with the testing mess faced by Indiana in recent history.  Contributing to the problem, the State Legislature has changed the standards students have been asked to learn multiple times in the last few years; also, State leaders have changed the formula for passing the test by a student, school, and district at least three times to a point that most educators and parents cannot even understand how this is done and what, exactly, it all means.  Again, greater autonomy and decision-making by local boards likely would avoid much of this confusion due to the direct accountability boards and local school officials face within their respective communities. 

 In 2011, the Indiana State Legislature passed a law requiring all school board elections be moved to November.  These decisions were decided historically at the local level.  One must ask why this issue required State overreach.  In another case, the State required districts to report their health insurance cost incurred by the district for their employees.  And....if that amount is over 12% of what the State pays, then a corrective action plan must be put in place to lower the overall cost, or to shift more of the cost to employees.  Since when should decisions about health care plans be made by State legislative leaders?  Interestingly, a recent report by the State Personnel Department (which requires that local school districts take time to submit this silly report), indicates that of the 138 Indiana districts that responded in 2015, 119 districts showed employer health care costs that were UNDER the State of Indiana employer health care costs (19 districts were over).  Sounds like the State of Indiana needs to worry more about its health care costs.

 All of these examples indicate just a small sample of the overall trend at the State level to pass new legislation, policies, and rules that limit the options and decision-making at the local level.  This must be reversed.   While many people have frustrations with locally-elected Boards, they much prefer the control at the local level.  Perhaps this is because local leaders are more easily approached and more easily held accountable; which leads to the need for this goal: Locally elected school boards need greater control over any and all matters that can be more effectively addressed in the communities where the impact will be felt.

 One glimmer of hope for local schools is that A-F grades under the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) are no longer required.  For years, State leaders have pointed to Federal requirements that all schools must be labeled with A-F grades.  This has led to embarrassment tactics utilized to unfairly judge public schools when so many confounding variables exist…making such judgement far from accurate or fair.  With A-F grades no longer required, it will be interesting to see if Indiana State leaders continue to utilize faulty tests to assign less-than-accurate letter grades to schools.  Often these grades have resulted in negative consequences for the economies of the communities in which the schools are located.

The United States often has set itself apart from other countries and other political systems with its strong educational system.  This system of schools traditionally has been controlled locally with decisions being made closest to the rooms where the children are educated.  This successful system is vastly different from educational systems in countries such as China, where uniform political structures lead to uniform educational approaches, with less regard to the varied and unique communities where students learn.  Why move towards a system of school management and oversight that replicates many educational systems that are trying to look more like the United States? 

Only three of 150 legislators elected to Indiana’s House of Representatives and/or Senate live in, or represent, Kokomo.  Why should greater power for local education rest with an elected body of which more than 98% do not live in our community?  We must advocate for returning more educational matters to local control and reverse the trend of increasing educational control at the State level. 

Instead of working tirelessly to reduce the power of locally-elected school board members who make educational decisions for their communities, Indiana Hoosiers and their respective leaders should be celebrating our public schools and recognizing the hard work of locally-elected school board members, who serve mostly as citizen volunteers, as they continue the tradition of shaping educational policies and programs for the students who are our neighbors, who attend our churches, and whom we see at community festivals and fairs.  Why should we want it any other way?

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