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Culture and Education

Why are Boards of Education Criticized?

Kiyotake Oki
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

Boards of Education as the focus of criticism

These days, amid discussions on local administrative reforms from time to time, or whenever problems such as bullying arise, Boards of Education (BOEs) become the subject of criticism. They have been increasingly under fire, especially in recent years, and some people even advocate the abolition of these organizations. There is nothing new with such criticism itself against BOEs.

Boards of Education founded based on the Board of Education Law enforced in 1948 were reorganized according to the Act on the Organization and Operation of Local Educational Administration (Local Educational Administration Act) enforced in 1956, and they remain to the present day through various law amendments and reforms (See Table 1).

The reports by the National Council on Educational Reform pointed out that BOEs lost their original functions, and in addition, BOE reforms were actively debated in the 1980’s, as attested by, among others, quasi-public elections for BOE members conducted four times in Nakano ward, Tokyo. Behind the reforms by that period seems to lie the criticism that BOEs ceased to function properly as part of the educational administration, and the fact that their original role as layman control drew renewed attention because of the actual malfunction of local BOEs which were supposedly based on decentralization.

Reforms of local educational administration were advanced through discussions on the Comprehensive Decentralization Law from the late 1990s, however, and certain functions of BOEs were transferred. Nevertheless, the criticism against BOEs seems to have mounted further, starting from the beginning of the 2000s. Recent criticism against BOEs includes criticism against their independence within the range of local administration and claims that they should be transformed to organizations similar to those within the range of general administration, as well as opinions to dismantle BOEs due to their inadequate functions to resolve educational problems.

Why are BOEs criticized?

Why has such criticism against BOEs not gone away? In considering the reasons, we cannot ignore the situation in which challenges that BOEs are historically obliged to tackle have not been solved yet.

First of all, as heads of local governments criticize, it can be pointed out that while the authority of BOEs is enormous despite their being merely a part of local administration, and while they have a high degree of independence from other departments and agencies of local governments, the locus of responsibility is recognized to be obscure.

Secondly, it is noteworthy that the structure of BOEs is not simple, and problems over narrowly-defined BOEs (selection and authority of BOE members) and those over broadly-defined BOEs (functions of the secretariat and the authority of the superintendent) are mixed. In general, such two-layer systems are difficult to understand.

Thirdly, particularly amid the decentralization reforms starting in the late 1990s and their swing back, the authority of the Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology actually expanded, and both decentralization-oriented and centralized reforms coexist, causing the whole image of the reforms to be less intelligible. Especially, the essential part of the relationship between prefectural BOEs and local BOEs, including problems involved in the authority over personnel matters of public school teachers at the compulsory education stage (problems over the cost of teachers borne by prefectures), has not been reworked yet.

What is derived from criticism?

While identifying the criticism and its background, a problem has arisen in that neither decentralization of education nor lay control of educational administration—both of which are principles in introducing BOEs—is fully functioning, in spite of the development of certain reforms.

If decentralization is pursued, a reform from the approval system for appointment of BOE members (approval of local BOE members by prefectural BOE, etc.) to the appointment system by heads of local governments based on the approval from the assembly (in 2000) would be substantial progress. There has not been sufficient discussion, however, as to the extent to which power is transferred from the central administration and prefectural BOEs to local BOEs or individual schools.

Meanwhile, the layman control, i.e., a BOE consisting of representatives of the general public in the relevant area, does not lead to a greater reform discussion including a quasi-public and public election system for BOE members, despite the advancement of certain improvements such as including representatives of parents in the current reforms.

Reform to delegate authority to local residents

The question, then, is what we need to consider, and what response is called for in order to improve these conditions.

To accelerate thorough decentralization, it is necessary for parents and local residents to assume not only rights but also responsibilities regarding school education. And this system has already been introduced nationwide. Specifically, it refers to the introduction of a school councilor system, and on a more advanced level, to deepening direct involvement of parents and local residents in school education by facilitating the transition from public schools to community schools. As is clear from the cases of charter schools in the US and school governing bodies in the UK, there are pros and cons in enhancing individual schools’ autonomy, and not all educational problems will be solved after this enhancement. But such enhancement will at least contribute to decentralization in which the authority of BOEs is transferred to schools and local residents to a certain degree.

Meanwhile, it is not easy to introduce a method to realize layman control in a precise sense. In practice, however, with regard to the appointment and dismissal of the narrowly-defined BOE members as the control over authority of BOEs, the authority of heads of local governments has already been legally recognized (See Table 2).

Furthermore, as for the broadly-defined BOEs, i.e., the BOE secretariats, clarification of responsibility and the accompanying controls are realized to a certain extent by implementing administrative evaluation (inspection and evaluation) of BOEs more thoroughly—evaluation whose introduction has been required since FY 2008.

In short, a variety of reforms are already underway. All of these reforms have just started, and it may be necessary to review in the future the outcome, challenges, and measures to improve challenges identified in these reforms.

Toward realistic educational reform debate

Although it is said that BOEs are often criticized, a previous academic study has revealed that over 70% of the heads of local governments, in fact, positively assess the existing BOE system.

And as stated above, efforts to establish a system reflecting more local residents’ voices are underway. Therefore, perhaps what we need now is to accept the reality that it may take a certain period of time to advance fully fledged educational reforms, to observe new efforts such as community schools and BOE evaluation, or to participate in such improvement activities and make improvements as needed.

As the idea of accountability (responsibility for achievements and explanation) has become common in Japan now, it is certain that questions of professional groups’ accountability are being raised anew. There is something that must be done in tandem with raising such questions, however. In order to improve the quality of schools and education, local residents and parents need to talk the talk and walk the walk (i.e., participate in school management). What lies ahead of direct involvement of the parties involved would be an opportunity to review the local educational administration system at the present time, specifically the BOE system.

How are you involved in your nearby school?

Kiyotake Oki
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

1996 - Left the doctoral program upon completing course requirements for the Education Course, Graduate School of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University
1996-1999 – Researcher, Office for Higher Education Research, Department for Educational Administration Research, National Institute for Educational Research
April, 1999 – Assumed a post as Full-Time Lecturer, and after teaching as an Assistant Professor, and Associate Professor at the School of Letters, Arts and Sciences I, Waseda University, appointed to his current post

He specializes in educational administration, systems and management, and educational sociology (higher education and student support research) Publications include: Self-Improvement of College Education Based on Data: The Past, Today, and Outlook of Institutional Research [Deta Ni Yoru Daigaku Kyoiku No Jiko Kaizen – Insutitushonaru Risachi No Kako, Genzai, Tenbo] (co-authored and co-edited, Gakubunsha, 2011); “Students and Employment/Career: Life of Students with Undetermined Career Path after Graduation [Gakusei To Shushoku/Kyaria – Sotsugo Shinro Miketteiso No Gakusei Seikatsu]” (Scientific Study of College Education: International Comparion of Educational Evaluation by Students [Daigaku Kyoiku Wo Kagaku Suru: Gakusei No Kyoiku Hyoka No Kokusai Hikaku], Toshindo, 2009); Regarding school reforms and evaluation, “School Evaluation in UK [Igirisu No Gakko Hyoka]” (co-authored with Shinjiro Kozuma and Shinji Kubota, How Do We Construct a Mechanism of School Evaluation?: How to Foster Autonomy, Learned from Five Advanced Nations [Gakko Hyoka No Shikumi Wo Do Tsukuru Ka: Senshin Gokakoku Ni Manabu Jiritsusei No Sodatekata], Gakuyo Shobo, 2004), “Involvement of PTA and Local Residents [PTA To Chiiki Jumin No Kakawari]” (The Facts and Reform Agenda of School Organizations and Teachers’ Work [Gakko Soshiki/Kyoshokuin Kinmu No Jittai To Kaikaku Kadai], Taga Shuppan, 2001); Parents as Partners in Schooling (co-translated, authored by OECD Centre for Educational Research and Innovation, Gakubunsha, 1998)