Accrediting Agency’s Role in Education Spurs Debate

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Contentious, dysfunctional, divisive and ineffective. Perpetual paralysis. An undercurrent of mistrust and conflict. A theme…of doubt and lack of confidence.

Those harsh words sound like a description of the notoriously partisan U.S. Congress. They are actually aimed at a more local source of frustration — school board members who meddle in hiring and firing, who misspend precious dollars, who disrupt board meetings or even hurl insults. But there’s a critical difference: When school boards misbehave, a private, nonprofit group has the power to rein them in.

AdvancED, parent company of three of the nation’s six regional agencies that accredit schools, sets standards for 1,300 school districts and 23,000 schools in 37 states, giving it a dominant influence over U.S. education. Some say its role has become too dominant.

Accreditation is a stamp of approval sought by schools around the world — from county- or city-wide school systems, to juvenile justice education programs, to exclusive private schools. The accrediting agencies look at school leadership because if a governing board is mired in controversy or conflict, students, employees, and the whole community can suffer.  Still, if elected school boards need to be straightened out, should that happen through a private process run by professional educators? Or through public debate and the ballot box?

The path through political chaos has significant consequences. School board turmoil affects how well the schools are run, and a downgrade in accreditation mars the reputation of the school system. And, some critics say, giving too much power to a private organization erodes a small slice of democracy.

“Democracy is hardball. It’s rough, it’s raucous. It always has been in the history of our country,” said Don McAdams, a former Houston school board member who founded the Center for Reform of School Systems to help improve school board governance. “So here’s a private organization involving itself, really, in the democratic process. And the democratic process is something that has to be regulated by the people themselves.”

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