Whither the School Board?

The Globe and Mail recently reported on a move on the part of provincial governments in Canada to reduce or eliminate the local school board.  The article quotes many who feel the age of the board has passed, and that the money saved by doing away with that level of school governance would free up more dollars for the classroom.  They draw on US examples where the mayor takes on responsibility for local control of education.

While efficiency is sorely needed in education, I am skeptical of the logic here.  If the plan has any hope of real savings, positions would need to be reduced or eliminated.  But the article acknowledges that leading option is to merely transfer the duties (and staff?) to the budgets of local governments – despite the dismal fortunes of cities. While we can all find examples of wasted administration in school boards, can we not find equally galling examples of waste in local or federal politics?

One question not explored in the article is the possible fate of boards as administrative centers.  And here I can see a powerful case in favour of boards and their initiatives.  While the provinces have been taking a larger role in salary bargaining, provinces like Ontario have moved towards a standard provincial funding model, and educational standards have always been provincial, there are still many school boards who, besides taking democratic input from the public, spearhead new initiatives, lead educational change, and generally push towards educational reform – in addition to providing the general oversight of the operations of local schools.

In a board-less world, would there exist local directors of education, and their staff of superintendents and administrative support?  If so, where are the savings coming from?  The actual trustee costs are quite tiny compared to the overall education budget, and certainly smaller than the board administrators.  If not, if the current drive means to reduce or eliminate not just trustees but also board staff, how would the province administer education, its second-largest funding commitment?  Simply transferring the costs to a different level of government, the city, hardly saves tax dollars, and more centralization hardly seems merited in an already highly-centralized system.

The only likely reduction is local democratic input, and given the (relatively) small cost of maintaining that local democracy, it is hard to see the pressing case for reform. When we compare the role of education in our lives to the roles of other government services, say, medicine, it becomes obvious that there is no government service that so dominates the lives of families.  If we are to insist that parents send their children to school, we ought to provide them a simple chance to have their voices heard.

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