The roots of modern school boards sprouted early in the history of our country, but it wasn’t until the first part of the 20th century that a new type of school board started to emerge, being modeled after corporations where the board focused mainly on policy and hired a superintendent as a type of CEO to handle the daily administration. This seemingly innocuous shift has had a profound effect on our systems of local governance along with our perceptions of fairness with respect to those over which our board governs; namely, our school teachers.
Before we can understand fairness in this context, we must first understand our roles in a system of corporate governance. Many of us, myself included, must answer to our managers who ultimately answers to the CEO. In public companies, the CEO answers to the Board of Directors who in turn answers to the shareholders. This form of governance provides the authority granted by ones position within the hierarchy to ensure accountability across each segment of the organization.
When we look at fairness in this type of organization we naturally think in terms of budgets and performance along with all the cost savings measures which include layoffs. However, as the shareholders in our community, it would seem that we are left with two options: to pay more for high quality services, or enact cost savings measures in order to ensure their continuation. Regardless of the power invested in us, we find ourselves playing the role of consumers kicking the vending machine, angry that it didn’t give us what we paid for.
What if instead of looking at our school system as a vending machine, we opened up the machine and laid it out flat for everyone to use? In other words, what if we looked at our school system as a platform for providing education? While that may be hard to imagine, simply take a step back and count the number of platforms around us. The iPhone, for example, enables developers to create an endless number of apps to sell the in the App Store. Apple doesn’t spend their money developing new apps but instead focuses on providing a quality platform for others to build on.
From the platform perspective, it’s not the responsibility of the board to legislate what others do on the platform (with some exceptions). For example, Amazon doesn’t limit what people can sell so long as they’re not selling stolen goods (amongst other things). The boards responsibility is to ensure that the platform offers services which enable its community to build their own solution. In this context, fairness is not a question of what someone is owed so much as whether or not someone has open access to the platform.
So what does platform thinking offer our teachers in the midst of their contract negotiations with the school board? In order for us to find the answer, we must return to our roots of local governance and branch out in a more inclusive direction; one that doesn’t limit authority to our elected officials, but enables each of us to build and grow our community. It is there we will find this common ground we so often speak of, not out of fairness, but through open access.