The History of Boards of Education and Reform Issues

What is a board of education (BOE)?

A board of education is a representative council established in prefectures or municipalities to oversee matters related to education in accordance with the Act on the Organization and Operation of Local Educational Administration.
The Japanese board of education system is based on the principle of lay control, which means that basic policy is discussed and determined from a broader perspective by a board consisting of part-time lay members and that the secretariat is administered and supervised by a superintendent, who is an educational administration expert.

  • A board of education has five members (there may be six members for prefectures under a prefectural ordinance).
  • Each board member is appointed by the governor or mayor, subject to approval by the prefectural or municipal assembly, and serves four years.
  • The chairperson of the board of education, who is elected from among the members, represents the board and chairs meetings. The term is one year.
  • The superintendent of the board of education, who heads the secretariat, is appointed from among the members by the board.
  • The superintendent of the board of education, who heads the secretariat, is appointed from among the members by the board.

Source: The Ibaraki Prefectural Board of Education

Functions of boards of education must be rebuilt in stable manner (Yomiuri Shimbun, April 16, 2013)

The Education Rebuilding Implementation Council, which works directly under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, has submitted to Abe its second set of proposals calling for drastic reform of the education board system.

In the proposals, the council clearly states that the superintendent of a board of education, who is appointed by the head of a local government with the consent of a local assembly, is responsible for educational administration. The head of the local government also has the right to dismiss the superintendent under the proposals.

The proposals are aimed at transforming the education board system. Currently, board members and other experts make decisions without any input from the head of a local government.

It has come to light that local boards of education around the country have failed to function properly in dealing with such incidents as one involving an Otsu middle school boy who committed suicide in 2011, apparently due to bullying at school.

Prompt action essential

The government’s Central Council for Education plans to study the proposals further.

We hope the panel’s assessment of the proposals will lead to rebuilding the educational administration at the local level.

Under the current system, local boards of education have a chairperson representing the board and a superintendent in charge of administrative work. This has raised questions about who is responsible for educational administration.

Except for the superintendent, board members are appointed on a nonregular basis, and they hold meetings only a few times a month. The board’s deliberations, therefore, tend to be a mere formality.

It has recently become apparent that they often fail to take prompt action when serious incidents occur, such as bullying and corporal punishment.

The proposals are aimed at correcting these shortcomings and enhancing the board’s maneuverability in implementing educational administration with the responsibility and power centering on the superintendent.

However, under the proposals, the authority for the personnel management of teachers and school officials and the selection of textbooks will be the responsibility of the superintendent.

Certain checks and balances are needed to prevent the superintendent from adopting biased policies.

In light of this, the proposals are calling for the maintenance of the education board system, rather than abolishing it. When the superintendent decides on basic policies and other key issues, the proposals call for these issues to be discussed by the entire board.

The method of appointing board members also holds the key for the new boards of education to monitor educational administration.

Political neutrality

The political neutrality of educational administration is essential, as the head of a local government would be empowered with the right to dismiss the superintendent. It is obvious the intentions of the head of a local government will be reflected, more than ever, in educational administration.

Will the head of a local government appoint someone who exercises little discretion in educational administration merely because he or she shares the same political beliefs?

Should the educational targets and policies change significantly every time a new head of a local government is elected, it would cause great confusion among teachers at local schools.

Even if the makeup of an education board changes, it is important to maintain the stability and continuity of educational administration.



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?


Can the Board of Education System Survive?

Shigehisa Komatsu
Professor, Faculty of Education and Integrated Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

(1) Boards of education and superintendents of education

Whenever a scandal occurs among teaching staff or there is improper treatment of pupils at school, it is usually the superintendent of education of the local government’s board of education, surrounded by other education officials, who faces the press and issues an apology. A prime example is the press coverage surrounding the recent bullying related suicide in Otsu City. Appointed by the board of education, the superintendent of education governs all matters that come under the authority of the board while receiving guidance and supervision from the board, and has the duty of providing specialized advice to the board of education. At the same time, the superintendent of education, as the head of the secretariat of the board of education, presides over individual specific matters being handled by the secretariat and has other functions such as guiding and supervising other personnel.

Japan’s board of education system was set up under the Board of Education Law enacted in 1948. Based on the recommendation of the report of the First US Education Mission to Japan and proposals from Japan’s Education Reform Committee and others, America’s board of education system was introduced as a model. When the system was first introduced, it caused considerable disruption including bickering about its simultaneous implementation by all local governments and accusations of political bias accompanying the direct public election of members of boards of education by citizens, so it did not really function as well as expected. Later, in 1956, the Local Education Administration Law was enacted in order to “harmonize education administration and general administration and to secure political neutrality in education and stability in education administration,” and the Board of Education Law was abolished. Although the board of education system that emerged from the enactment of the Local Education Administration Law was by no means stable, it has survived and, about half a century later, the debate about its review is intensifying.

(2) Decentralization reform and the review of board of education system

This has all happened before a background of changes in local government system caused by evolving decentralization and municipal mergers. Amid attempts to drastically review the division of roles between central and regional government, discussions have also heated up regarding the reorganization of education administration. The debate is wide ranging, from a review of the current simultaneous implementation and a switch to optional implementation to the abolition of the board of education system itself. Apparently triggered by the tone of such arguments, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology has made a review of the ideal format of boards of education through its Central Council for Education and others and in 2007 carried out a revision of the Local Education Administration Law in order to keep the basic framework of the system while strengthening its function, clarifying accountability, promoting decentralization, and reinforcing liaison between governors or mayors and boards of education.

Nowadays it is Toru Hashimoto, the Mayor of Osaka, who is pressing for more debate on the review of the board of education system. Since his period of office as Governor of Osaka Prefecture he has seized the opportunity to criticize the board of education system and, as a result, to take the leading role in governor and mayor led education reform. One of the points at issue is a review of the relationship between education and politics. The gist of the ordinance put forward by his Osaka Restoration Association is that government can and should be involved in education administration, which has stirred up a great deal of debate. Then, March 2012 saw three ordinances come into effect: Basic Ordinance on Education Administration, which specifies the rules enabling the Governor to set educational goals in consultation with the Osaka Prefectural Board of Education and the Governor’s authority to dismiss education board members; Ordinance on Prefectural Schools, which makes high schools that have failed to reach their quota of candidates for three years in succession and have no prospect of improvement subject to reorganization and the appointment of a head teacher in principle by open recruitment; Basic Ordinance on Staff, which makes staff who have violated the same formal order three times subject to dismissal.

Along with the education administration by boards of education which have been set up and run to maintain the political neutrality of education, the education administration by individual governors who have been directly elected by the people is about to be initiated. Osaka’s experiment has only just begun so it would be premature to judge whether it will have any consequences for local education administration or any beneficial or other effects on children. In the US, mayoral takeovers, in which boards of education have been broken up and control of education conferred upon mayors, have already been taking place since the mid-1990s in some of the major cities across the country such as Boston, Chicago, and New York, and have generated interest among many scholars who are researching their merits and demerits.

(3) Japan Educational Administration Society’s symposium on governor and mayor led education reforms and the board of education system

The 47th conference of the Japan Educational Administration Society will be held on October 27 and 28, 2012 at Waseda University’s International Conference Hall. Anyone can attend the special event (from 9:30am on October 27) and public symposium (Part One from 12:30pm on October 27 and Part Two from 9:30am on October 28). For the special event, “The Revitalization of Boards of Education Based on the Leadership of Superintendents of Education,” the Society will invite superintendents of education who have attracted attention nationwide for their positive actions in order to give a better understanding of their policy measures and their results and issues. The public symposium, titled “Governor and Mayor Led Education Reform and the Board of Education System” with the sub-themes “Trends in Osaka Prefecture and Osaka City and their national implications” in Part One and “Examining the influence of governors and mayors on education administration” in Part Two, will be an opportunity to gain important insights into the overall ideal local education governance for our country. I would urge anyone with an interest in this subject to attend.

Shigehisa Komatsu
Professor, Faculty of Education and Integrated Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

Born in Tokyo in 1953. Having obtained a PhD, he held positions at Soai University and Kobe Gakuin University before taking up his current post. His area of specialization is Educational Administration Studies. His publications include Research into American Urban Education and Politics [Amerika toshi kyoiku seiji no kenkyu] (Jimbun Shoin); The Direction of School Reform (Revised Edition) [Gakko kaikaku no yukue (Kaiteiban)] (Showado).

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