Parents and students from Franklin High School in Southeast Seattle packed the Seattle Public Schools (SPS) board of directors meeting on Wednesday, June 21, urging the board and the district to save the school’s beloved mock trial program from budget cuts. A few weeks earlier, families from nearby Washington Middle School had filled the room to oppose cuts to the school’s jazz band. Both schools are majority BIPOC; nearly a third of their students are Black.
The board did not vote to save either program. Instead, board directors deferred to administrators, referencing the Student Outcome Focused Governance (SOFG) model as part of their discussion.
If the board had voted differently, they likely would have been charged with “micromanaging.” The Seattle Times has repeatedly harangued against board micromanagement since at least 2007. A recent Stranger article on SOFG explained that the board adopted this model in part to address concerns about micromanagement. Without board action, however, families and students lack assurance that their needs will be addressed if the board doesn’t step in.
A poll conducted in February found that only 28% of Seattle voters approve of how SPS is being run. The district faces a budget deficit of more than $100 million, and it is making major cuts to programs and considering closing schools. In such an environment, the school board is more important than ever to ensure that the people of Seattle are involved in important decisions that affect the schools.
SOFG is built on the idea that the school board needs to focus solely on “student outcomes,” letting the administration handle everything else without board involvement. In Seattle, most of these outcomes take the form of test scores.
Defenders claim this readjustment is necessary for the board to maintain focus on improving student outcomes, including those for Black boys, as directed in the district’s current strategic plan. In practice, school communities, including those with large numbers of Black students, have fewer ways to impact decisions that affect them.
Following the SOFG plan, the school board has eliminated most standing committees, where oversight work and policy development typically happened. The Board is also working on a “policy diet” in which the Board will give control over many existing policy areas to the Superintendent. The Board is slated to decide which policies to cede by November 2023.
Instead, the Board approves “goals” for the superintendent to meet and “guardrails” that are designed to prevent the administration from implementing the goals in ways the public wouldn’t support. But these goals and guardrails are vague, and they do not specify what happens if the goals aren’t met or the guardrails aren’t respected.
This model resembles those used by corporate and nonprofit boards and applies them to a publicly elected school board. It’s no surprise given that its backers support a corporate approach to public education and have worked to limit the power of elected school boards.
SOFG is a project of the Council for Great City Schools, which recently received a $1.5 million grant from the Gates Foundation. A.J. Crabill is the Council’s director of governance and is coaching Seattle’s school board on SOFG. Crabill served on the Kansas City school board and then became a deputy commissioner with the Texas Education Agency. In Texas, one of his responsibilities was to impose a version of SOFG on local school boards in districts with low test scores. It’s No Child Left Behind for school boards.
Crabill states on his website that “School systems do not exist to have great buildings, have happy parents, have balanced budgets, have satisfied teachers, provide student lunches, provide employment in the county/city, or anything else.” Crabill recently suggested that there ought to be “automatic recalls if student scores drop dramatically.” This is thankfully not possible under Washington State law.
In San Francisco, progressives have begun mobilizing against SOFG. Their school board adopted SOFG after a new board took office. A number of those seats were appointed by the city’s mayor in the wake of the successful billionaire-funded recall of three progressive board members by conservative activists. One of the recalled board members, Alison Collins, slammed SOFG, suggesting it is “code for privatization” and “justified via standardized testing.” The SF Education Alliance, affiliated with Our Revolution (which emerged from Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign), is leading a new campaign against SOFG.
Here in Seattle, school board Vice President Liza Rankin defended SOFG to The Stranger, claiming that “the fear that SOFG gives the Board less power to check the Superintendent comes from a confusion of the roles of the two entities. The Board sets policy and judges how well the Superintendent implements the policy, but the Board cannot involve itself in the actual running of the schools.”
That’s Rankin’s opinion, but she wrongly passes it off as fact. Nothing in state law prevents the Board from involving itself in the actual running of the schools. In fact, state law explicitly states that “each common school district board of directors, whether or not acting through its respective administrative staff, be held accountable for the proper operation of their district to the local community and its electorate.”
SPS would be better off moving away from SOFG and toward other models, especially as school closures loom. Genuine participatory budgeting and reforms that empower community members and the board to make more of the decisions that affect students can help improve the district’s operations. Otherwise, all the board will be left with is a rubber stamp.
Robert Cruickshank is the parent of three kids in Seattle Public Schools.