Public education in Virginia has had a long, strange history. Most of the current laws regarding the establishment of school systems date to 1950 and §22.1 of the Virginia code establishing that school boards shall be established by a school board selection commission either elected by the population or appointed by the county “governing body”, in most jurisdictions a county board of supervisors.
In early 1992, the Virginia state legislature enacted §22.1-57.2 and §22.1-57.3, providing for a transition to an elected school board by county-wide referendum. With this action, Virginia became the last state in the United States to allow for elections of their school boards. Since then, 105 of the 134 local school boards in the state have transitioned to an elected or partially elected system.
This massive change in the management of Virginia school systems comes as school systems in some states are fighting corruption and “politics as usual” in their elected school systems that are years, or decades, ahead of those in Virginia. This paper will examine pros and cons of elected school boards, and how Virginia’s schools have fared.
A Little History: Public Education in Virginia
Along with the rest of the United States, Virginia began to offer public education to its children in the early 1900’s. Driven by the industrial revolution’s need for educated and competent workers, these schools flourished. Like most southern states, most Virginia counties provided two separate school systems—one for whites, one for blacks.
With the landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education (actually a conglomeration of court cases, one against the public schools of Prince Edward County, Virginia), the “separate but equal” doctrine was deemed unconstitutional and school districts were ordered to integrate their racially divided schools. In many southern districts across the nation, this was fought vehemently. One notable case is the aforementioned Prince Edward County in Virginia, which decided to literally shut down their public schools to prevent desegregation.
The comparatively rich white community was able to put their children in a private all-white system, while most blacks were simply unschooled. This sad state continued for five years before the supreme court specifically struck this down.
Although Prince Edward County proved an extreme example, desegregation was roundly detested in Virginia’s white community, the same community who controlled the county governments and—indirectly—selected the school boards.
The Electoral Shift
Driven by dissatisfaction with the public education system, and empowered by the seeming success of elected school boards in other parts of the country, in 1992 Virginians convinced the state legislature to write the following passage into the Code of Virginia:
The registered voters of any such count . . . may, by petition filed with the circuit court thereof, ask that a referendum be held on the question of whether the members of the school board of the county, city, or town shall be elected directly by the voters. The petition shall be signed by registered voters equal in number to at least ten percent of the number registered in such locality on the January 1 preceding its filing. Upon the filing of a petition, the circuit court shall order and require the election officials at the next general election to open the polls and take the sense of the voters therein on that question (§22.1-57.2) . . . If a majority of the qualified voters voting in such referendum vote in favor of changing the method of selecting school board members to direct election by the voters, then the members of the school board shall be elected by popular vote (§22.1-57.3).
With this, pro-election groups across the state rocketed into action organizing petitions, though some—mainly minorities—were wary of elected school boards. Emmitt Carlton, president of the Alexandria, Virginia chapter of the NAACP, believed that the plan would cut blacks out of school boards because many are appointed where they might not be able to get elected, while others—like Mary Anne Lecos from Fairfax, Virginia—were certain that an elected school board would be ineffective without taxing power (O’Harrow 1992).
Lisa Payne, a mother from Loudon County, Virginia, began to organize a petition to bring forth elected school boards with the same sentiment that many began with—”There’s no partisan politics. There’s no special interest groups. We’re just folks,” she said (O’Harrow 1992). But by the time the elections were beginning in the mid 90’s, many were singing a different tune. Many felt that the electoral districts had been racially gerrymandered (Bates 1993), while Fairfax County’s first school board election in 1995 turned highly politicized with major political party involvement (O’Harrow 1995).
Despite these complaints, Alexandria, Loudon, and Fairfax all successfully elected their school boards and continue to do so today along side most other school districts in Virginia. Most major hang-ups have been regarding a shift from archaic laws regarding appointments, for example Alexandria was faced in 1995 with the prospect of replacing a board member who chose to move to Indianapolis and discovered that most local and state laws did not provide for special elections, but for reappointment by the county government (Bates 1995).
And How Great It’s Been
One contentious issue of elected school boards is the issue of race. Many claimed that the new system would limit minority representation, while others claimed that minority representation would increase. However, before the first Virginia school boards were elected in 1995 minority representation stood at 20 percent on boards in the state, nearly ten percentage points above the national average of 11 percent. There has been no notable change in this figure (“Election of School Boards” 1999).
Many feared an influx of politics into the control of public schools, and these fears have been realized. No argument can be made that school board proceedings are devoid of the political squabbling normal to other legislative bodies, however an argument could be made that in this respect there has been no change. School board appointments under the previous system, which had been amended to allow in certain circumstances the direct appointment of school board members by the county government, were at the whims of the party-in-control of the local legislatures. Despite this, there was something of a buffer zone between pandering for electoral support and the management of schools which is all-but gone now.
Political squabbling, of one sort or another, has always occurred in school board meetings. Some members retained appointments from previous legislative administrations that may have been represented by a different party than the current one. These squabbling, however, never had the high stakes of electoral campaigns riding on them until the electoral shift. Under an electoral system, the decisions effecting the school children of a jurisdiction rest directly in the hands of persons who could be described as politicians, rather than those who could be described as educational professionals.
Whether electorate control of public education is a good thing or a bad thing in the opinions on the people, American education still lags significantly behind that in many other “western” nations in the world. Studies consistently rank American education near to twentieth in the world, which is abnormal considering our nation is without-a-doubt the richest and most powerful remaining in the world. In Virginia, the elected boards have been in effect too short a time to accurately determine their effect on education in the state, however their existence nationwide seems to have done little to change the quality of education, for better or for worse, in the United States.
The Scott Bradford position
Many would argue that persons seeking reelection will pander to the whims of the people for their own personal gain—and say so in a negative tone—while others would say that the jobs of politicians are to pander to their constituents, feeling that school boards should represent the views of the people. Both people supporting and people against elected school boards will tout their views to that effect, but the fact is that this is a moot point. Whether politicians, and in this case school board members, pander to the people is completely irrelevant. The real question worth asking is this: where control of school districts should logically rest.
There are some jobs that should be entrusted to “the people”, through elected bodies, while there are other jobs that should be left to professionals. For example, in the national government, while the congress and president are elected, the actual workings of government are run by professional managers with experience in the required field. The Department of Justice, for example, falls under the control of the appointed Attorney General with a background in law enforcement or a legal profession. Likewise, in local governments, police and fire chiefs are professionals appointed by the elected government of that jurisdiction from police and fire officers.
The reason why professionals are selected for these positions is it is necessary that such fundamental institutions as police and fire departments be separated from the whims of an impressionable public and pandering legislators trying for reelection, and it is necessary that these entities not be “run-by-committee”. If police forces were run by an elected ‘civilian’ police board, it would be likely that arrests could only be performed with board approval, and the types of guns and police cars used would be selected by this board.
Chances are that were this method used to run police forces, chaos would ensue and the ability of the department to effectively enforce laws would be hindered. I would make the case that this has happened to public schools, and that they are damaged by the authority being vested in an elected board rather than in the hands of an appointed educational professional.
A Witness to the Madness
In November of 2001, I attended a meeting of the Fairfax County School Board for a paper in another class and was surprised by the sheer political nature of the discussions. The board debated its legislative package, a set of requests sent yearly to the Virginia legislature, and discussed such things as school voucher programs, and taxation powers for school boards. A significant portion of the meeting was also dedicated to a discussion of which elementary level math curriculum was best for students in the county, including various speakers from the community.
The speakers were mainly parents and others who sported their well-spoken views on what curriculum best served the students. The board selected to defer the discussion to another evening. While community involvement in the school system was the entire point of school boards, and more fundamentally in elective school boards, parents are not educators. The views of parents should not be ignored, however they likewise should not be given any more weight than is absolutely necessary.
Like police officers are in the best position to determine how to best manage a police force, educators are in the best position to determine how to best mange a school system. I believe that school boards, while serving to make the public feel involved, does not properly serve the best interests of the students—because when it comes to some things, like education and police forces, the public may not always know best.
So Who Should Run the Schools?
The management of school systems should rest in the hands of a superintendent, appointed by the locality’s elected government. This superintendent should be a qualified educational professional with years of experience, and a good feeling for what teaching methods are most effective. They should have control over all the things that school boards control now, and should answer directly to the elected local government. There are some places that more democracy works well and serves the people, but there are other places where the people ought not to have a direct say. The management of school systems is best left to people who have made education their life, because those are the people properly qualified to handle such an important part of our society.
Quality education is a necessity in the modern world, and the United States is lagging behind. The best way to get the system back into gear is to remove the legislative process, specifically designed to turn everything into a long committee deliberation, from the management of our schools. It would not be any more “undemocratic” than having appointed police chiefs, and I believe that we would see a strong positive shift in the quality of American education if we pulled this kind of political squabbling out of school management.
Bates, Steve. “Alexandria gets districts for School Board Elections.” The Washington Post. 1993.
Bates, Steve. “Judges May Have to Replace Elected Alexandria School Board Member.” The Washington Post. 1995.
O’Harrow, Robert. “Virginians gear up for elected school boards.” The Washington Post. 1992.
O’Harrow, Robert Jr. “Race Becomes Political.” The Washington Post. 1995.
“Election of School Boards.” Virginia School Board Association. http://www.vsba.org/bdelect.htm. 1999.