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Balance power in the school system

“All politics are local” is a phrase attributed to Tip O’Neill in 1982, a former speaker of the House. The same can be said about education. What happens in education happens at the local level. Its not that politics or education exist in a vacuum; they don’t. But after all is said and done, this is where the rubber hits the road.

Many people in the know have said the problems facing public schools are systemic, meaning no one part can be held responsible for deficiencies within the system; all the parts have a role to play. Nevertheless, some parts of the school system are considered more essential than others. The administrative organization is one of those essential parts, along with assessment and evaluation strategies. The whole system is shaped by these two parts.

The local public school is organized like a business, with a board of directors who hire a chief executive officer to run the school. In New York state, the statutory powers and duties of a superintendent under Education Law Section 1711(2) defines these specific powers and duties:

1. To be the chief executive officer of the school district and the educational system, and to have the right to speak on all matters before the board, but not to vote.

2. To enforce all provisions of law, rules, and regulations relating to the management of the schools and other educational, social, and recreational activities under the direction of the board of education.

3. To prepare the content of each course of study authorized by the school board. The content of each such course shall be submitted to the board for its approval, and when thus approved, the superintendent shall cause such courses of study to be used in the grades, classes, and schools in which they are authorized.

4. To recommend suitable lists of textbooks to be used in the schools.

5. To have supervision and direction of associate, assistant, and other superintendents, supervisors, principals, teachers, lecturers, medical inspectors, nurses, claims auditors, attendance officers, janitors, and other persons employed in the management of the schools or the other educational activities of the district authorized by (the Education Law) and under the direction of management of the school board; to transfer teachers from one school to another, or from one grade of the course of study to another grade in such course, and to report immediately such transfers to the board for its consideration and actions; to report to the board violations of regulations and cases of insubordination, and to suspend an associate, assistant, or other superintendent, director, supervisor, expert, principal, teacher, or other employee until the next regular meeting of the board, when all facts relating to the case shall be submitted to the board for its consideration and action.

6. To have supervision and direction over the enforcement and observance of the courses of study, the examination and promotion of pupils, and over all other matters pertaining to playground, medical inspection, recreation and social center work, libraries, lectures, and all other educational activities under the management, direction, and control of the school board.

With regard to the transfer of teachers, the Education Law specifically provides that a collective bargaining agreement may modify the superintendent’s authority.” (Ref. Taylor Law of 1960s)

Clearly, this antiquated law encourages authoritarian leadership. This authority emanates from decision makers at the top of the public school hierarchy, the federal Education secretary, state Legislature, the governor and the Board of Regents, the state Education Department, superintendents and administrators.

Teachers and teachers’ aides, students and parents are at the bottom of this pyramid, and taxpayers are forced to underwrite the exorbitant costs.

The amount of authority placed in the hands of one person in concert with a school board composed of laymen, generally without educational credentials, speaks to the heart of the problems of school improvement in this 21st century. Change that part, and the whole system changes.

In truth, most school superintendents try to delegate responsibility and authority; they do not follow the law to the letter, unless a grievance is filed against those in charge within the hierarchy. A complaint is then turned over to the nearest attorney. Representing the defendant, how does the attorney frame the case? The antiquated law becomes the heart of the defense, and what does that law assert, the power to maintain the status quo. Does the plaintiff have a chance?

Does this explain why systemic change is kept in abeyance? Suppose the movement to standardize education, with its standardized tests, is found developmentally inappropriate and needing to be changed since continued use can perpetuate child abuse. How would that case be handled? Does administrative endorsement of standard tests preclude any changes in this practice? Does the plaintiff have a chance?

Let’s get after the governor, the Legislature and the Board of Regents to bring the law up to date to ensure participative/democratic decision making and a balance of power.

Robert L. Arnold lives in Willsboro and is a professor emeritus of education at SUNY Plattsburgh.