In the early days of our nation, the majority of Americans received their education at home. Teaching was done by the parents or a private tutor if they were fortunate enough to afford one. The Puritans were the first to identify the need for a public education and established schools across New England. After the American Revolution, Thomas Jefferson argued to build an educational system funded by taxpayer dollars, but it wasn’t until 1852 when the first compulsory education laws were passed in Massachusetts, which by 1918 lead to every American child being required to attend public schools.
The responsibility of governing public schools was separated from the city council early on in the history of education. As the demand for public education began to increase, selectmen separated educational governance from city governance and appointed committees in each town to govern local school systems. In 1837, Massachusetts established the first State Board of Education, though the authority remained at the local level as many were distrustful of the state’s ability to represent local interests. The Massachusetts model of governing education spread throughout the colonies and its separation from city council has persisted into the present day.
On the surface this would seem to be an ideal model for many of the challenges we face as a nation (including the compulsory healthcare laws which coincidentally originated in Massachusetts). A National Network of State Boards of Education whose authority rests in the hands of local School Boards elected by the community. But when you dig a little deeper into the disconnect between the city and the schools, you see more than a separation of governance. You see the silos which Lori Kershner identified on her website which calls for “better cooperation between the city and the schools.”
A recent blog post by David Petroni, an elected member of the Springboro School Board, left me wondering why the Board is having trouble restoring confidence in Springboro?
To be sure, the continued attempts by the Board at teaching Creationism in public schools has done little to sell their Children’s First budgeting, which on the surface appears to be a means of replacing Unions with Religion. But the fact that he and his fellow Board members are creating a “Conservative Alternative” for public schools tells me that he knows how to create confidence but has yet to connect it to the Springboro Community.
Take a look at the Ohio School Boards Legislative Council and marvel not only at the clarity of their vision, but the number of YouTube videos, workshops, and other public events. Then imagine instead of engaging their community, they made themselves available for public comments, published their decisions, and explained their rationale on a blog.
According to news reports, the Springboro Education Association is currently holding a vote between the 300-some teachers they represent to adopt the changes to the contract, as recommended by their negotiation team. Given their approval, the Board of Education will vote on adopting the proposed changes in a special meeting scheduled for tomorrow evening. While many parents and local residents will no doubt consider this a win compared to a strike and the loss of additional staff, I can’t help but feel like this is one small step for Springboro schools, and one giant leap for the privatization of public education.
To understand this giant leap, one needs only to start at the top. According to the ERIN Project, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has given over $37 billion to organizations that support school choice, followed by the William H. Kellogg Foundation, the David and Lucille Packard Foundation, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, each of which has given over $7B, $6B, and $5B respectively. Michelle Rhee, the controversial ex-chancellor of D.C. public schools and the founder and CEO of StudentsFirst.org, reportedly earned generous contributions from those same organizations to support school choice in small towns across the nation.
So to begin with, let’s put the school board off to the side and pick up our smartphone. What makes them smart isn’t the technology so much as the things that people do with them. To be more precise, it’s the apps that people build on top of the technology which enables them to show a map of nearby restaurants, update our status on Facebook, or play a game with our friends. In slightly technical terms, your smartphone is a platform for building mobile apps.
The concept of platforms isn’t limited to mobile devices. Amazon provides a platform for retailers to open shops and sell their products. YouTube delivers a wide variety of services on their platform aimed at helping people create their own video channels. Once you start thinking in terms of platforms which enable producers to create something of value for consumers, you’ll notice that platforms abound both online and off. AirBnB is one example of a platform which enables homeowners to rent their property like a hotel, and who could forget Craig’s List and their platform for personal ads?
Given the number of platforms which connect our modern world, it’s a wonder why more of our civic leaders don’t employ platform thinking to solve our community challenges. So instead of offering a list of demands for what I think the Board of Education should do to improve Springboro schools, I would like to present the three elements for building a successful public education platform.
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.
Last night’s Board of Education Meeting at the Springboro High School was especially meaningful to me, not because of any hot button issues which are burning in our community, but the number of times that “transparency” was mentioned in one way or another. I believe it was David Petroni who said something to the effect that the Board has made every attempt to be as transparent as possible, not only in the negotiation process with the Teacher’s Union, but on their Transparency Project as well.
The winner by far in the “transparency count” was Dr. Kelly Kohls who simply by having the role of calling out the next item on the agenda referred to the documents posted on BoardDocs. For whatever reason, it took me this long to view the site and see everything the Board has made available to the public. (And here I am complaining about how hard it is to get people to view RapGenius!) Names, documents, policy numbers, and proposals are all online, well in advance of the meeting, and easily accessible though the Springboro City Schools website. When added to the wealth of information available elsewhere on the site, I’m not sure how much more transparent the Board could possibly be!