Author:Ford, Michael R.

There are almost 14,000 school districts overseeing the delivery of public education in the United States (U.S.). An overwhelming majority of these school districts (94.8%) enroll fewer than 10,000 students. Over half, 54.5%, serve fewer than 1,000 pupils. Those districts serving fewer than 1,000 pupils include large numbers of both suburban rural districts that, though similar in size, operate in fundamentally different governance contexts. In this article we use original data collected from a national survey of school board members to test several hypotheses regarding the governance differences on school boards overseeing small rural and small suburban school districts. The purpose of the paper is to use the case of school boards overseeing small districts to test how small group governing dynamics differ across the rural and suburban contexts.

We use the case of U.S. school boards because they offer several structural and practical advantages for learning about the nature of local governance. One, every U.S. citizen is exposed to public education as a student, parent, or taxpayer. Hence school boards and their mandate are familiar to most U.S. citizens. Two, public education is the most expensive function of state and local government (Mullins & Pagano, 2005). According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), in the 2013-2014 school year state and local governments spent $586.1 billion on K-12 education. In addition, there are over 3.6 million teachers, and millions of additional administrators and support staff, employed by U.S. school districts. Though some scholars have questioned the relevance of public education to the study of public administration, its place in the family of local governments is indisputable given its scope and size (Raffel, 2007). Three, the broad exposure of citizens to public education governance makes school boards a uniquely contested governance environment with large variation in goals, board member conflict, interest group pressures, and spans of authority (Alsbury, 2008; Howell, 2005; Manna & McGuinn, 2013). Four, school boards have the unique advantage of overseeing a compulsory service whose performance outcomes are measurable via mandatory standardized testing. As such, school boards can be a venue where governance can be linked to hard measures of organizational performance. In summary, the case of U.S. school boards and their members is of both practical and theoretical significance to the study of local governance.

In the following sections we use the case of U.S. school board members to explore the differences between governance in small rural, and small suburban school districts. We first present a review of the literature on public governance, school boards, and theories of small group dynamics. We then present several hypotheses informed by the literature review. Next, we describe a national survey of school board members used to measure the perceived small group dynamics present on U.S. school boards. Then we present several quantitative models to test the hypotheses. Finally, the implications of the results, as well as a roadmap for future study, are presented.


Theories of local governance posit that the context in which governance actors operate affects their agendas, interactions, group dynamics, decision-making, and governance outputs. Lucas (2016) defines governance as "the changing patterns of rule in and through which public policies are produced (7)." As such, understanding governance requires studying the perceptions of individuals in the governing process, the context in which governing actors operate, and the products of the governing process, i.e. policies and outcomes. The concept of governance in the public sector is a direct outgrowth of the changing reality of how public goods and services are produced and distributed. Traditionally, government services are produced and overseen by centralized rule-driven bureaucracies (Goodsell, 1994; Weber, 1946). Under traditional notions of bureaucracy public administration is studied by exploring the formal relationships, structures, and rules governing agencies and their employees. However, the human relations school of public administration problematized traditional approaches to studying public administration by emphasizing the importance of studying human beings and all of the complexities they bring to the governing process (Simon, 1946; Frederickson et al., 2012).

The Reinventing Government movement, as well as theories of managerialism and New Public Management, furthered the rise of governance as a framework for understanding oversight of the provision of public goods and services (Politt, 1993; Osborne & Gaebler, 1993; Osborne & Plastrick, 1997; Kettl, 2005). The conceptual framework of governance accepts that networks comprised of public, nonprofit, and private actors often provide public goods and services to citizens. Further, governing networks have amorphous boundaries that challenge traditional bureaucratic ideals such as span of control and hierarchy (Milward & Provan, 2003). Though Stillman (1999) and Frederickson (1996) suggest that governance is a normative term promoting the thinning of administrative institutions, it is generally accepted in the public administration literature that the framework of governance reflects the reality of modern service delivery (Osborne, 2010). Understanding governance also involves understanding the human beings engaging in decisionmaking (Ford & Ihrke, 2018). In this article we explore the understudied human side of governance by applying the lens of small group dynamics to the work of school boards operating across rural/suburban contexts.

The case of U.S. school boards mirrors the evolution of the modern governance framework. Ashby (1968), in one of the first studies of American school boards, describes the roles of school board members in traditional terms of fiscal oversight. Board members ensured that tax dollars were spent correctly, and that school district policies were followed. Missing from Ashby's (1968) work was any mention of school district performance, school district customers (i.e. students and parents), the constraints of federalism, pressures from outside interest groups, or the perceptions of board members themselves. However, over the fifty years following Ashby's work several trends regarding the changing nature of school board governance surfaced.

First, there was significant consolidation of U.S. school districts. According to the NCES there were 22,010 school districts in 1968. By 2011 that number was down to 13,588. Correspondingly, consolidation let to an increase in the average size of the U.S. school district. Second, the span of authority of U.S. school boards shrunk (and is still shrinking). As Howell (2005) detailed in an edited volume entitled Besieged, the ability of school boards to make basic decisions such as setting the tax levy, establishing assessment policies, and making spending decisions is increasingly restricted by state and federal laws. For example, required hours of instruction, specific curriculum, the specific standardized test used for funding purposes, and in many states even the tax levy, is a function of state mandate and not local discretion. Federal law, including the Every Students Succeeds Act, provides funding for low-income and special needs students. But federal education law also introduces mandatory reporting requirements and accountability frameworks in exchange for federal funds. As such, school boards could, in theory, serve as a compliance body as opposed to a leadership body.

The seeming inability of school boards to enact meaningful policy change has led to calls for the abandonment of the model altogether (Finn Jr. & Petrilli, 2013). Indeed, these calls are not idle threats. Alternative governance models such as private school vouchers, charter schools, cyber schools, and mayoral control of school districts are growing in both urban and rural areas (Henig, 2013; Hill, 2013). As these alternative models grow the language and lessons of network governance in public administration increasingly applies to education governance (Provan & Milward, 2001). As the Author (2017) details in previous work, the growth of alternative governance models like vouchers and mayoral-controlled school districts, creates management challenges resulting from the need to oversee collaborations rather than manage single bureaucracies. In most cases existing structures lack the authority and/or capacity to effectively manage in such an environment.

More recent school board research explores the link between school board governance and academic performance. Delagardelle (2008) identified linkages between the governance behaviors of school board members, school culture, and student outcomes. Grissom (2014), in a study of California school districts, linked board member conflict to lower student test scores. Ford and Ihrke (2015; 2015a; 2016), in a series of studies, showed how adhering to best practices, minimizing interpersonal conflict, and board member alignment on the meaning of key concepts like accountability and strategic planning, are linked with higher student test scores and graduation rates. Overall, the school board governance literature is recognizing that boards have serious constraints on their decision-making, that...

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