I wonder what Mr. Mann would think today about the legislation that is making its way through the Vermont assembly to abolish the State Boards of Education, or for that matter the countless efforts by several governors to eliminate or diminish the public’s participation in public education governance. There are proposals in at least 10 states to reduce the authority of Boards, if not to eliminate them all together. The arguments are as inevitable as the proposals; “accountability should be in the hands of the governor”; “business leaders are dissatisfied with the slow progress of education reform”; “the majority of the Board was appointed by someone from another party, someone who doesn’t share the political views of the current governor.”Interesting how this line of reasoning focuses on power, influence and authority, not on the zeal embraced by Horace Mann for determining first what is good for all students, and then how providing a quality education of those students would benefit the country. We are inundated by state leaders with the challenges of global competitiveness and the importance of rigor, less frequently do we hear about academic relevancy or why students are disengaged.
The model of independent lay boards was developed to insulate education to the extent possible from politics. It had merit in 1837 when Horace Mann became the first State Board Chairman and it has merit today. The variety of views and perspectives from across a state informing the policymaking process benefits every child in the state. Four years before the Wallace Foundation identified school leadership and the role of the principal as a cornerstone for educational reform, State Board Members identified this as a critical issue and requested a NASBE Study Group on the topic. Before Governor Warner successfully led the National Governors’ Association’s initiative on high schools, State Board Members participated on a NASBE Study Group on the crisis state of the American high school.
As institutions State Boards are not perfect, as individuals State Board Members have flaws, but the same can be said for governors and legislatures and the solution is not to abolish them to improve the quality of governance at the state level. Governors and legislators should concentrate on how to strengthen and improve State Boards of Education, not eliminate them. Least we forget, it was a State Board Member who had the vision for public schools for all.
Brenda Lilienthal Welburn