Education Today: Summer, 2016

The Critical Role of Locally Elected School Boards for Canadian Democracy, Citizenship, and Educational Excellence

John Lorinc has written an article in the October 2015 issue of The Walrus: "Class Dismissed, Do we really need school board trustees?" He raises salient questions about a very important subject that, regrettably, is largely absent in our public discourse: Do school boards or boards of education " create more effective school systems that produce adequately educated young people? Do they provide residents with a say in how the education system functions? Do they matter at all?"

Essentially Lorinc's argument questions why school districts rely on electoral representative democracy to function effectively. After reviewing the clear evidence of erosion of school board powers by provincial governments, the views of informed academics, and the manifest dysfunction of the Toronto District School Board, Lorinc concludes that "If we've already decided not to let trustees make serious decisions, then it's time to figure out a better way to oversee our schools."

In this response, I will argue that, first, school boards elected by universal franchise are an indispensable element of Canadian democracy; second, school boards retain the necessary and sufficient democratic mandate and statutory power to govern schools (including a discussion about their not exercising their power and some reasons why); and third, by exercising their power strategically, school boards can lead the changes required in our schools to meet successfully the educational challenges of the 21st century.

First: school boards and Canadian democracy. As Churchill noted: "Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing had happened". Today, Canadians are not immune from neglecting the importance of certain truths. For those who have had the good fortune to live and grow up in an open and democratic society, it is easy enough to take its essentials for granted, including rule of law, security of the person, representative institutions and democratic procedures, freedom of the press, and protection of basic rights and freedoms. For these to be secure, however, a truly free society depends on a public or civic culture which understands and values democratic principles and traditions, and is vigilant on their behalf.

Education lies at the core of such a civic culture; and at the heart of education lies public education. Public education in Canada has been the great equalizer. Public education has been the means by which people of diverse languages, cultures, and social and economic circumstance have been integrated into Canadian society with some reasonable aspirations to equality of opportunity. Public education has been the key to whatever measure of social equality we may claim to enjoy; and social equality has shaped and informed Canadians' belief in their equality before the law and their equality as citizens of a free and democratic society.

It is no exaggeration, therefore, to say that our commitment to public education, open and available to all members of our society, is the key element in shaping the way our society has evolved. It is also the key element in shaping many other public values and determining most other public policies. This is so because our commitment to democratic values, to free institutions, and to public accountability rests on the foundations of an educated citizenry that is capable of making informed choices and accepting the obligations that go with such choices.

Our citizens are educated in public schools.  Such a fundamental truth about the nature of our democracy mandates that citizens have a say through their elected representatives about the operation of their local schools. To that end, Canadians do have an indirect say in schools through electing their representatives at the provincial government level that has constitutional responsibility for education. But  public education's uniquely essential importance to our civic society makes imperative a direct instrumental connection between our citizens and our local schools. This connection acts as a double protection, if you will, of this most important democratic function: the creation of an informed citizenry. This notion responds to Lorinc's quote from Annie Kidder of People for Education that: "Finding where democracy fits into education is a very complex problem".

As stated in Black's aptly titled "Rise to Greatness: The History of Canada From the Vikings to the Present" (2014), Canada is the only transcontinental, bicultural parliamentary federation in the world and is a leading democracy. It should not be taken as a coincidence that local citizens have been electing school trustees in Canada since before we even became a country.

As to the notion mentioned by Lorinc that municipal government could operate schools at least two counter arguments prevail.  The experience of municipal control in the USA has checkered results, its successes mostly restricted to circumstances where the quality of learning in schools was in far worse shape than any comparable school districts in Canada. Adding the mandate of school governance to that of the current municipal mandate would invariably detract the amount of focused attention to both sectors. As for efficiency, a single school board can govern the schools for multiple municipalities (for instance, the Victoria Board of Education encompasses the schools in five municipalities).

Lorinc also notes that "School boards are the farm teams of local politics". Indeed, they are, since many school trustees are later elected to office in other levels of government. Well, why not? As elected representatives of the people, they are politicians. And we need politicians. Regrettably, today the terms "politicians" and "politics" are mostly applied in a derogatory manner. A democracy does this at its own risk. In his book, "In Defence of Politics" (1964) Bernard Crick rightly stated that the political involvement of an educated citizenry is an essential feature of democracy. Crick provides an accurate description of politics as " a public debate and constant process of creative compromise between both values and interests" resulting in the creation of social order and stability without resorting to state coercion.  Politics is the core function of a working democracy because it "represents at least some tolerance of differing truths, some recognition that government is possible, indeed best conducted, amid the open canvassing of rival interests". Finally, Crick points out that "Politics are the actions of free men. Freedom is the privacy of men from public actions."  In summary, Crick's perspective on politics usefully serves today by reminding us why that without politics, there is no democracy.

It follows then, that it is a good thing that, in addition to governing schools, school boards provide a training ground for aspiring politicians.  Lorinc's detailed examination of the current antics of the Toronto District School Board clearly illustrates how political cultures can become dysfunctional  (with the current US Congress displaying dysfunction on a national scale). In such cases, the bathwater needs throwing out not the baby.

One final point respecting elected school boards and, in particular their members, the school trustees, is relevant here. The writer has spent a long professional career working with elected people at all levels of government, including over a decade of experience with school boards and hundreds school trustees, mostly in British Columbia, but also across Canada with provincial school board associations. This experience taught him that, as an elected group, school trustees are unsurpassed in their respectful concern for the use of public money, while their cost is relatively miniscule in the overall education budget. They treat tax dollars as sensitively as they do their family budget, and they would rather have their own remuneration frozen for years than vote for an increase, if it meant not hiring a school librarian. There are egregious exceptions in some school districts, certainly, but these are the ones that prove the general rule.

Having argued why locally elected school boards are an essential element of Canadian democracy, let us turn to the argument that, despite the loss of many of their traditional powers (local taxation, being a major one), they have necessary and sufficient democratic mandate and statutory power to govern schools.

Lorinc quotes Paul Axelrod, former York University Dean of Education, "the relentless erosion of trustees' policy-making ability may actually be causing all this dysfunction [related to the Toronto District School Board circumstances], by forcing them to stray into the minutiae of day-to-day operations, scheme with senior bureaucrats, or seek out attention in other, more conspicuous ways". The loss of policy-making and other powers is a reality. Another reality is that school boards retain great power and the problem is not loss of some powers but the widespread failure to focus on the significant power remaining.

It was said, uncharitably, of British cabinet minister Austen Chamberlain that, being the former mayor of Birmingham, he was used to looking at issues through the wrong end of a municipal drainpipe. The way some look at the issue of school board powers could be characterized similarly. School board roles and responsibilities are exhaustively delineated in provincial education legislation and are supplemented by ministerial regulations, policy and assorted reporting and related directives about an extensive array of school matters. Yet, the basic democratic mandate reflective of the public interest in school board governance is not easily spotted from that end of the drainpipe.

This basic democratic mandate is: To use the public's money and report back to the public the results of this use to improve the learning success of all students. Period. All board decisions should be justified in relation to that mandate. This means that the school board should address two primary questions before voting on any decision: How will this decision improve student learning and how will we know if it is successful?

This means that school boards' primary focus should be on raising the bar on student learning success; closing the gap between high and low performing students; reporting results to their communities; and, thereby, engaging the support of their communities for the continued supply of public money for schools.

We now turn to whether or not school boards have the power to fulfill this mandate. They do. The key element in improving student learning success lies in the quality of classroom instruction. The quality of classroom instruction is within the hands of classroom teachers. Classroom teachers are highly professionally experienced and are currently delivering a standard of student learning success across Canada that ranks, according to OECD, as amongst the very best in the world. This means that every school district in Canada and, hence, every school board in Canada is currently making a contribution, albeit in slightly varying degrees, to that remarkable international accomplishment. All these teachers are currently in the employ of school boards and, consequently, are subject to leadership emanating from their professional ranks and their educational management officials (principals/vice-principals and superintendents). Indeed, the school board has exclusive power to appoint its senior education leader, its superintendent and to give her a specific detailed remit of performance expectations. These decisions are the most important that any school board can make.

That said, it must also be acknowledged that we can improve our students' learning success and if we do not do so Canada will fall behind, to the detriment of its world-class standard of living- not to mention the quality of life of its individual citizens.

For school boards to do better means they should place much more direct focus on this task than they currently do. As noted above they have in their current employ the classroom teachers who are capable of improving students' learning. They also have appointed superintendents who can successfully lead all the classroom, school, and district educators. As importantly, we have the knowledge and successful experience necessary to improve student learning on a provincial scale (as exemplified by OISE's Michael Fullan and his team's success in Ontario, England and elsewhere internationally).

School boards definitely have the mandate, power, educators, and professional knowledge at hand to become even more effective governors of our schools. However, the regrettable reality is that, in practice, school boards do not place enough focus on this key work. The vast majority of school board attention is placed on business matters like buses, buildings, labour issues, etc. which all deserve some attention, but not to the degree they currently receive at the expense of deliberation and decision-making directly focused on student learning. An examination of school board meeting minutes over any year will almost invariably demonstrate a very limited amount of time spent deliberating on the superintendent's report on student achievement and related learning issues and a disproportionate amount of time spent on a vast number of ancillary topics. Undoubtedly, many ancillary topics may have some political aspects that boards must pay attention to- changing a school bus route has understandable and legitimate community repercussions that the board may need to address. But equally there are a myriad of subjects that school boards spend time on that are peripheral to student learning. As much as reasonably possible school boards should agree to address these subjects if at all only if some tangible connection can be made with impact on student learning.

An interesting case in point is the closing of a small school and the public reaction that follows. Frequently, the decision is framed in financial terms that may well be a factor but the real issue is what impact attending a different school will have on the learning of affected students. Related to Lorinc's argument about the loss of real power, power to close schools preserves a degree of provincial government support for school boards because no member of a provincial legislature- government or opposition or municipal mayor- wants to be responsible for such a controversial decision.

So, why do school boards not generally shift their attention more from business matters that only indirectly affect student learning to issues that have direct impact on learning success? There are many reasons and they vary from board to board, including and in no particular order:

  • a lack of trustees' confidence in their ability to pronounce reasonably on education issues as the required knowledge to understand adequately educational issues is deemed too great to acquire;
  • a lack of appreciation that the school board's democratic mandate is to focus directly on student learning and that they are responsible for its success to be demonstrated;
  • a desire by some superintendents to keep the trustees out of the issue of student learning because it might reflect on their professional performance, or their belief that trustees are too ignorant on the subject to be much help and will only unnecessarily complicate their management work;
  • a strong ideological bent by a majority of trustees on a board. For example, a teacher union may influence a board to lessen its empirical focus on student learning performance lest it reflects negatively on teacher performance; 
  • a realization by trustees and superintendents of the highly controversial nature of defining learning success and its measurement, in fear of becoming entangled in negative outcomes;
  • a focus by school trustees on a single issue that they are reluctant to abandon;
  • a lack of interest from school trustees who do not seriously attend to their electoral duty;
  • a genuine feeling by school trustees that their students are learning well enough and greater effort to improve a good situation is not a top priority;
  • a ministry of education whose actions tend to become overwhelming ( such as New Brunswick's failed attempt to run schools noted by Lorinc); and,
  • a culture of dysfunction arises when a majority of trustees consistently fail to form any consensus on a course of action to move the agenda forward.

There may be other reasons for particular boards to eschew their primary democratic mandate, but the foregoing gives a general indication of some common ones. All these reasons for not fully focusing on student learning can be successfully addressed by a combination of trustee education (provincial school board associations and the Canadian School Boards Association have a important role here), leadership on boards and by superintendents, and political will.

Let us turn now to the third part of the argument: how school boards could exercise their power strategically to lead the changes required in our schools to meet successfully the educational challenges of the 21st century.

If school boards whole-heartedly accepted their democratic mandate to focus seriously on improving student learning success and overcame the reasons for not exercising their power to do so, how might they go about accomplishing that goal?

One approach might be to ask a set of key questions of their superintendent, in his role of senior education advisor and chief executive officer. Just as educators ask questions of their students so can school boards ask questions of their educators.  To set an organizational framework for school board deliberation on student learning here is a rudimentary set of questions that a school board might ask its superintendent:

Q1: How should "the Idea" of our particular school district manifest itself?

Rationale: School district traditional vision and value statements are usually generic and are almost inter-changeable amongst school districts: they are highly rhetorical, but contain little real practical meaning in the schools or community. The reality is that, while there are many common features about all school districts, there is also a distinctive combination of values and interests unique to each school district- its own "Idea". This conception can only come initially from its educators, parents, and students and subsequently tested for acceptance by the larger community. The objective is to articulate an amalgam of the signature characteristics of the particular school district that reflects the thinking and beliefs of its people, who can then agree, "Yes, that is who we are!" There are new evolving public consultation approaches available to facilitate this articulation process. Once such an "Idea" has been created, all school board decisions can be made within its parameters, thereby enhancing the prospects for the success of subsequent decisions and their implementation.

Q2: How well are our students learning today?

Rationale: Trustees are democratically mandated to report to their constituents on their efficient use of public money to promote students' learning. To do so, they need to know the current general status in straightforward layman's language, and also use this information as a rough base line measure to gauge future improvement.

An important note: there are variations in measuring learning success. Obviously there exist provincial measurements that must be taken into account. But it is equally important to develop qualitative and quantitative measures that are appropriate in the particular context of each school district, and reflect its "Idea".

Q3: What are the plans for improving the students' learning success and decreasing the gap between their high and low performances?

Rationale: As noted above, maintaining the status quo (even if it is a high ranking one, such as Canada's recent educational performance) will result in falling behind other nations that are improving educationally. So improvement is necessary  throughout the range of learning success. As well, school boards' democratic accountability obligates them effectively to inform their constituents of their plans for the educational improvement of their district.

Q4: How will we know if we are making progress?

Rationale: There is a need to develop locally a way for monitoring progress that would reflect the district's specific student context. This would in turn ensure the accountability of both educators and school boards to their constituents.

Q5: How can we best support our superintendent and our  educators to achieve professional success?

Rationale: If the school board sets clear expectations in terms of students' learning (highly advisable but often not the case) for the performance of the superintendent as senior education official, the superintendent is reciprocally entitled to receive as much support as can be reasonably provided by the school board.

All school boards have the power to ask these questions and work with their superintendents and management teams to lead the educational improvement in their schools. Exploring these learning-focused questions will require a great deal of the school board's attention as conditions constantly evolve and incur the need for adjustments to planning. It is also important to keep a reasonable balance so that the superintendent can be fairly expected to provide her professional advice without unduly taking away from the time required to be in schools and working with her management team.

It should be noted that the present structure and processes of school boards, like those of all governance bodies, are not perfect and could benefit from thoughtful review from time to time. In fact, there exist today in some provinces such reviews that possibly offer useful ways and means for improving  school board governance generally.

The foregoing key question approach is offered as a rough sketch of how school boards might proceed effectively to fulfill their real democratic mandate. Essentially, what we should be seeking here is excellence in education. Samuel Johnson tells us that "Those...who attain any excellence commonly spend life in one pursuit; for excellence is not often gained upon easier terms." School boards, and for that matter all educators, should primarily focus on the pursuit of learning excellence.

A more recent commentator, our Governor General, and distinguished academic, David Johnson, opined about why Canadians don't win more Nobel Prizes: "We have a culture of humility and restraint, which serves us in some respects. But when one is competing for the great prizes of excellence, we should put some of that culture aside and be very ready and willing and imaginative in identifying and promoting our best...we want to reinforce a culture of excellence and aspiration in this country." And, most certainly in our schools!

As well, in his victory speech on election night, Prime minister-designate Justin Trudeau stated that "good enough is not enough" because Canada can do better. Again, surely, this applies to our schools and school boards.

School boards should use their existing power to attain learning excellence as measured by the values and interests inherent in each of their particular school districts and they should broadcast their efforts and successes to their constituents. Voters will take notice when they realize their school boards are actually doing something important that Canadians care about - creating educated citizens in public schools.

Through his Walrus article John Lorinc has performed a fine service in introducing school board governance into the Canadian public discourse, but the real story is not his dismissal of school boards for lack of power. The real story is that locally elected school boards have been a critical part of Canada's success as a democracy built upon its informed citizenry and its educational excellence. And today locally elected school boards have the power do even better for all Canadians. 

Dr. Lee Southern,
Executive Director, British Columbia School Trustees Association (1995-2008)
Leesouthern44@gmail.com

November 2015