Warped policy: notes on Counts’ critical analysis of school board composition

“To a degree and in a fashion seldom grasped, the content, spirit, and purpose of public education must reflect the bias, the limitations, and the experience of the membership of this board.”

— George Counts

 As I watch the campaign build for an elected school board in Chicago, I am thinking about the questions raised in George Counts’ 1927 monograph, “The Social Composition of School Boards.”   Counts argues that education for democracy is threatened by the fact that school boards, by and large composed of the dominant social classes in America, don’t represent the interests or the capacities of people in the public schools.  I am not sure why I am so surprised by the relevance of Counts’ analysis to education policy today.

Counts’ study of school board demographics and bylaws in districts across the United States, rural and urban, county and city, is driven by the questions: “Who are the men and women composing the boards that control public education in the United States?”  “What is the probability that they will support a type of education which seeks to make the coming generation genuinely intelligent about the present complex civilization and its numerous problems?”

Counts finds that the vast majority of school board members are high-income men – he cites chancellors’ job descriptions of school boards, noting that women and “unsuccessful” men are explicitly excluded, as well as the “uneducated.”  Seeing this term used to harden social boundaries made me rethink the label ‘uneducated’ — used with the same tone of denigration today that it was 90 years ago by chancellors who made sure people who hadn’t gone to university had no place at the table of education policy.  But the term suggests a deficiency in the individual, when the attention instead should be on the conditions – more specifically, the people and interests — that keep a person from being educated.

“The outstanding conclusion to be drawn from this study of the occupations of the members of boards of education is that the control of education and the formulation of educational policy are intrusted very largely to representatives of the more favored classes.”  So far nothing new.  But Counts goes on to name a democratic principle that now as then is seldom considered: people of one class are ill-suited to represent people of another class: “The argument may be advanced that these board members, though drawn from a restricted class will, because of the superior educational opportunities which they have enjoyed, rise above a narrow loyalty to their own group and formulate education policies in terms of the common interest.  We all wish that this were so, but there is little evidence from the human past to support it.  The rare individual will strive earnestly to have regard for the best interests of all classes, but no one can transcend the limits set by his own experience.  The best of us are warped and biased by the very processes of living.”  Laid out this way, I become uncomfortably aware of an assumption I make that education, experience, and professional duty enable an upper-class person – such as a member of our current Chicago Public Schools Board – to advocate for the best education for lower-income students.

My assumption is based in large part on my value for higher education.  But Counts addresses this bias in a way that I find compelling: “if intelligent men and women can be found in the community who have not attended college or even the secondary school, they might be expected to bring to the deliberations on educational policy a certain freshness of point of view which would be helpful.  When all the members of the board are to a large degree products of the same educational system, they are likely to manifest a uniformity of outlook which will make difficult the adjustment of the procedures of the schools to the changing needs of society.”  Why do I imagine that people who have had access to higher education are best prepared to make policies that impact access to higher education?  Won’t people who haven’t had such access be more invested, focused, and knowledgeable about what limits and what enables access to higher education?

Counts’ monograph strengthens my commitment to working for an elected school board in Chicago – but it also compels me to work for equitable representation on the school board.   People who have been denied quality education are the ones who we most need to lead the fight for quality education for all.

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2 thoughts on “Warped policy: notes on Counts’ critical analysis of school board composition

  1. Maria Moreno says:

    What a great point you make here about which people should be advocating for the entire student body as well as for the people attached to them! Mr. Counts had the right idea almost a century ago; no matter how well-intentioned many board members are, they have to be products of their own experiences and education, there’s no getting around that. This doesn’t make them incapable of making decisions that will benefit all students, but it makes them inherently limited in this regard unless they have among them those voices of folks who have experienced first-hand what it is to learn English as a second language, or how it feels to have only three or four job options after high school, or what it means to need the income of one’s children to sustain the family. The need is there, but getting those people to the table would take lots of outreach and convincing, not only to the potential school board candidates but to an electorate that trusts what they know and are already familiar with, especially when that means leaving everything in the hands of the most educated and well-off.

    • Perhaps deliberating and decision making takes time and space more than specialized skills and methods. Imagine how things could be if ordinary people were provided the kind of time and space to bring what they know to bear on policy. The right knowledge and the right questions, are there in the communities, but the people at the table of power aren’t listening.

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