Education Today: Summer, 2016

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

The following essay has been edited for length and adapted with permission. The complete article is posted here on the Education Today page.

By Dr. Lee Southern

John Lorinc wrote an article in the October 2015 issue of The Walrus entitled "Class Dismissed: Do We Really Need School Board Trustees?" (https://thewalrus.ca/class-dismissed/). He raises salient questions about a very important subject that, regrettably, is largely absent from 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 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 argue first that school boards elected by universal franchise are an indispensable element of Canadian democracy; second, that school boards retain the necessary and sufficient democratic mandate and statutory power to govern schools; and third, that 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. Canadians are not immune from neglecting the importance of certain truths. Among those who have had the good fortune to grow up in an open and democratic society, it is easy enough to take its essentials for granted, including the 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 that understands and values democratic principles and traditions and is vigilant on their behalf.

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. 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.

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 words "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), the British political theorist Bernard Crick rightly stated that the involvement of an educated citizenry is an essential feature of democracy. Crick provided 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 resort to state coercion. Crick's perspective on politics usefully serves today to remind us that without politics there is no democracy.

Having demonstrated 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 still have a necessary and sufficient democratic mandate and the statutory power to govern schools.

Lorinc quotes Paul Axelrod, a former York University dean of education, who has said that "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 nevertheless retain great power, and the problem is not loss of some powers but the widespread failure to focus on the significant power remaining.

The basic democratic mandate of school boards 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 school boards 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?

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 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 in the hands of classroom teachers. 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 directors of education). Indeed, school boards have the exclusive power to appoint the senior education leader, the director of education, and to give her a specific detailed remit of performance expectations. These decisions are the most important that any school board can make.

School boards definitely have at hand the mandate, power, educators and professional knowledge 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 trustees' attention is directed towards business matters like buses, buildings, labour issues, etc., which all deserve some attention but not to the degree they currently receive. As much as is reasonably possible, school boards should agree to address these subjects, if at all, only when some tangible connection can be made with impact on student learning.

So why do school boards generally not 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 these (in no particular order):

  • Trustees lack confidence in their ability to pronounce on education issues, because they deem the knowledge needed to understand educational issues properly to be too great to acquire. 
  • Trustees fail to appreciate that the school board's democratic mandate is to focus directly on student learning and that they are responsible for demonstrating that their decisions are resulting in student success.
  • Trustees realize that defining and measuring learning success is highly controversial and fear becoming entangled in negative outcomes.
  • Trustees tend to focus on a single issue that they are reluctant to abandon.
  • Trustees perceive that students are learning well enough and that greater effort to improve an already good situation is not a top priority.
  • The board is overwhelmed by the actions of the ministry of education (such as New Brunswick's failed attempt to run schools, as noted by Lorinc).
  • A culture of dysfunction has arisen because a majority of trustees have consistently failed 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 this list outlines the most 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 an important role here), leadership by board members and directors of education, 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.

One approach might be to ask a set of key questions of the director of education, in her role as 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 trustees might ask:

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

Q2: How well are our students learning today?

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

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

Q5: How can we best support our director of education and our educators to achieve professional success?

All school boards have the power to ask these questions and work with their directors of education and management teams to lead educational improvement in their schools.

In his victory speech on election night, Justin Trudeau stated that "good enough is not enough" because Canada can do better. Surely, this applies to our schools and school boards.

Through his Walrus article, John Lorinc has performed a fine service in introducing school board governance into Canadians' 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, which is built upon an informed citizenry and educational excellence. Today, locally elected school boards have the power to do even better for all Canadians. 

Dr. Lee Southern,
Executive Director (1995-2008), British Columbia School Trustees Association
Leesouthern44@gmail.com
November 2015