I think the poet Catullus is noted first to have said, “The government that governs least, governs best.” Paine, Jefferson and Thoreau each followed with their own versions of the sentiment, though each also with their own intent. As a principle, I tend to agree, but in the current climate, I’m not sure anyone else does.
We do rely on our governments, though. In times of war or economic disaster, where else would we turn for protection or assurance? In the modern era, governments both reflect and shape the values of the governed. Even in an age of disenfranchised democracy, we hold up our own government as a symbol of who we are, what we really believe.
In this issue, several contributors discuss the importance of civic life and responsibility to our schools, our students, and the education we provide. By historical standards, citizens of modern liberal democracies possess a great deal of power to influence the people and mechanisms by which we are governed. The more knowledgeable, the more spiritually grounded, the be er equipped with relevant skills, the greater the influence our students might have in their lifetimes. And if they understand themselves to be both citizens of heaven and this world, their civic contributions will be means by which God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.
In many ways, schools are no different than nations. When I look carefully at the schools which many admire for their commitment to educational mission, their confident Christian identity, their institutional prosperity, and their consistent impact on graduates, I find one consistent characteristic: good governance. A school improperly staffed or inadequately designed may not be rescued from failure and insolvency by an active board, but trustees who govern within a culture of goal-oriented planning provide good schools with the energy and resources to achieve their potential. A good board can’t save a bad school, but a good board can lead a good school to greatness.
Conversely, in his article for this edition of The Journal, Bill McGee describes the detrimental impact that a poorly functioning board can have on even the best schools. He also proposes steps that can be taken to help the boards of promising schools to improve their performance and the prospects of the schools they govern. This is timely, because the trend in Christian schools seems to be that their governance is getting worse, not better.
One indication is that the average tenure of heads of school has dramatically decreased over the past twenty years. According to one source, the average tenure of a head of school twenty years ago was eight years. Today, average tenures are less than half that. That’s half the time to envision, to nurture, to build. Half the time to bring families and students along in partnership with the school’s mission. Half the time to establish a faculty culture of loving expectation. Half the time to fulfill the expectations of families who have entrusted their most valuable possessions to our care.
The financial poverty that the current recession is exposing in many Christian schools is another indicator. One prominent Christian school leader recently told me that he expects as many as 20% of Christian schools in his association to fail— shut their doors, lay off their staff, sell off their desks and football pads—in the next two years. Not only is this tragic for the students and families left without a Christian schooling option, but it is a tragedy for our culture. As John Seel asserts in his article for this edition, Christian schools have never been needed more than today.
Can all of this be blamed on poor governance? Certainly not. There is plenty of blame to go around, from consumer demands to hide bound administration to teachers who just punch the clock. Still, it is also true that no group of stakeholders is more prominently positioned to either move a school forward or to hamper progress than its governors, the trustees of the school’s mission. It is a sacred trust, deserving the best effort, the best information, and the undivided a ention of every board and every board member.