Local school boards: Time to get rid of them?

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California school boards are facing heat over on-campus police forces, Critical Race Theory, and coronavirus safety precautions. Commentator Joe Mathews says absorbing the blows has become their essential role. Photo by Shutterstock.

San Francisco is at times known for its rough-and-tumble approach to local politics. But now a more bruising political fight is playing out in the City by the Bay. It involves three members of the local school board, who are being targeted in a recall.  

Zócalo Public Square Commentator Joe Mathews says the situation is raising bigger questions about the role played by school boards in the state, and who is making the important decisions about education policy.

Opinion column by Joe Mathews:

If California’s local school board members won’t accept unfair criticism, questionable recall votes or verbal abuse, then California should do away with school boards entirely.

Why? Because taking Californians’ crap has become the essential role of local board members in our crazy educational system.

They don’t have all that much else to do. Real power over California schools is centralized in Sacramento — and kept far away from the 5,000-plus luckless souls who serve on the boards of California’s 1,000-plus school districts. 

The governor and legislative leaders manage school spending formulas and draw up education budgets. Powerful statewide teachers’ unions control personnel and most educational policy. At the local level, school board members usually have less power than popular teachers, principals, professional staffers, and teachers’ associations. 

School board members are left to serve as lightning rods, absorbing much of the righteous anger that otherwise might be directed at the unions, politicians and formulas that actually rule our failing system. While the media often describe verbal assaults and threats against public officials as scary or abnormal, the truth is quite the opposite. This is the California system working as intended.

That hostile, dysfunctional system is also at the heart of the hottest education dispute in the state right now: The forthcoming February election to recall three members of San Francisco’s school board. 

Let’s be clear. It’s a disgrace that one of the world’s wealthiest cities has such a terrible school district. San Francisco Unified, which never managed to reopen during the last school year, has seen some of the state’s sharpest enrollment declines and has a budget so broken that the state has intervened to limit its fiscal power. 

But the school district’s failures did not precipitate the recall. Indeed, these three board members became targets because they failed to understand that their job is to catch spears, not throw them. 

All three members have lashed out at others in ugly ways. They used bogus internet research in a ludicrous effort to remove the names of public figures past and present, from Abraham Lincoln to Dianne Feinstein, from various public schools. 

The board members attacked critical parents as racist — an accusation that boomeranged, exposing the anti-Asian bigotry of one especially toxic member of the board. That same member sued the district and her colleagues for $90 million before dropping the lawsuit after a federal judge dismissed it. 

Such behavior merits a recall. But recall backers — including Mayor London Breed and the powerful State Senator Scott Weiner — go too far when they say the school board members should have been opening schools or fixing finances instead. The truth is that school board members don’t really have the power to do either of those things. Their real offense was dishing out abuse when they should have taken it as California school board members are supposed to do.

This is why the recall in San Francisco and other school board recalls in California might not change very much at all. Regime change certainly won’t make school boards more powerful. Neither will turning school board seats from elected to appointed positions as a San Francisco ballot measure proposes.  

So, what’s the solution? Under the current system, there really isn’t one. 

Ideally, California would decentralize its education system and give more power to local communities and their elected school board members to raise the revenues, choose the curricula and hire the teachers that best fit their students. But such a system would require a political revolution to roll back court decisions, teachers’ union power, and Proposition 13, which limits the taxing power of communities.

Under the current system, giving school boards more local power would probably only create more trouble, more meddling and more questionable spending. That is what has happened at LA Unified, which gives its board members six-figure salaries, big staffs, and their own analysis unit.

For now, the best way to end scapegoating of school boards would be to remove the scapegoats entirely. Because if we eliminate local school boards, there’s a chance that the people who have real power in California education might take more of the heat themselves.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.




Chery Glaser


Darrell Satzman