State Boards Of Education Are Regulators, Not Advocates

Kennedy center right. Photo via SEC Historical Society

On June 30, 1934 Joseph Kennedy became the first Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman. FDR had made clear he wanted Kennedy to be the chair among his initial appointees. It was an interesting choice because it cut against the wishes of progressive Democrats and Kennedy had by that time made a fortune in the “markets” – in some cases doing things the SEC would subsequently prohibit. But Kennedy – a successful studio head, investor, and businessman, who would later chair the Maritime Commission, serve as Ambassador to England, parent three influential United States Senators, one who would become president and one who was arguably more influential than many presidents* – understood the role. He wasn’t there to just advocate for capitalism. He was there to help Roosevelt save capitalism from itself.

Here’s a good book about Kennedy if you’re interested.

Roosevelt’s gambit in picking Kennedy for the role was clever. It allowed the SEC to build credibility with business and move into the regulatory game. And, well, if you want to understand sin you should talk to sinners. Kennedy could have gone faster or further but he understood the line between regulator and advocate, why it mattered and what side the SEC should be on. The SEC has evolved a great deal since then into the vital agency it is today.

This came up last week when I was fortunate enough to spend part of a morning with some state board members at the annual NASBE legislative conference.Too many state board of education members don’t the advocate versus regulator distinction. Or, their proper role in the principal – agent relationship between state oversight and school operation.

State boards face a lot of challenges but one of them, that is in their control to fix, is this basic client confusion. Around the country you talk with a lot of board members and ask them who their client is and they will tell you it’s the school districts, or the various adults who work in the system. “I represent all the hard working educators” you sometimes hear or things to that effect. When I was on the state board in Virginia a colleague said, in an open meeting during a debate about a policy about where to set the bar for new teachers, that sometimes we should put what’s best for the adults first. It was an honest and revealing slip.

But this is wrong. The client is kids and families and more broadly the taxpayers. Full stop.

Let me be clear, people who are hostile to public education shouldn’t be on state boards of education. You wouldn’t want your fish and game commission chock full of vegans and PETA activists either. Likewise, avoid people whose default instinct is to make things harder in various ways for adults working in schools. And those people exist and at times operate in the orbit of schools. At the same time, however, people who see their default role as being just an advocate for the system should not be in these roles either. People with experience in and around the system are vital – and so are people who are just committed to public service. But what they should all share is an orientation toward being a regulator rather than a booster.

Why? The job is not to advocate for the schools, it’s to regulate the schools. Just like the SEC isn’t hostile to capitalism, but its role is not to excuse away every failing in the financial world. The SEC is charged with holding people accountable for those failures, remedies where appropriate, and putting in place policies and practices to try to prevent problems upstream by creating an environment that broadly speaking is conducive to effective capitalism. Substitute education for capitalism and state boards of education should seek roughly the same.

After the disastrous pandemic experience – and also before that for anyone who was paying attention – the education system is in desperate need of some regulation and prods to do better because it’s largely unaccountable to anyone outside of organized constituency groups right now and there are few remedies for people being consistently failed by it who don’t have personal financial means.

The tells on this come up a lot. You will often hear things like, ‘we can’t do that because the districts/teachers/x group won’t like it.’ Obviously leaders should listen to and parse feedback, and often objections will make a proposal stronger. Yet at the end of the day these various groups not liking something is not dispositive.

In the NCLB-era the gyrations boards went through to avoid transparency about system performance or measure that might reveal problems reached the point of total absurdity.

It’s not just policymaking. You see this in the ethos. Consider press releases. Next time some dismal results come out take a look at the spin. Post-pandemic closures in 2020 and 2021 some state board releases spent more time trying to convince parents why they shouldn’t pay attention to the dismal scores than explaining what the results were or why they might matter for your kid. Or when NAEP time comes and scores are generally stagnant or down you often see the press release with a headline to the effect of “Left-handed 8th-grade girls who play sports up 3 points.” And a credulous media too often writes from the release rather than parsing the actual data.

Now people will say, if you love public education you should fiercely defend it. Highlight the good. And sometimes they throw in some social justice or democracy dies in darkness kind of rhetoric, too. Nice sentiment. Tends to shut down debate. But instead, consider the possibility that if you love public education you should fiercely work to make it a lot better – especially for those students it systematically underserves. And that means regulation and policy to make public education more effective not enabling or excusing dysfunction in the name of defense.

What might that look like in practice? More transparency about performance and finance. More accurate reporting on results and the measures those results are based on and what they do and don’t mean in practice for what students know and can do. More measures to actually hold schools accountable for results with reasonable remedies where that is not occurring. More choices for parents within public education.

Bottom line: State boards should think of themselves as akin to an SEC role not like just another star in the advocacy constellation around public schools.

*(If you’re rolling your eyes, or better yet pouring a stiff drink, because I didn’t say bootlegger among his various roles I’d suggest David Nasaw’s excellent biography of Kennedy, which doesn’t pull punches on Kennedy’s faults, but takes a fact based look at that myth. Political misinformation is not a new phenomenon.)

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