NEW YORK. — America's 15,300 local school boards have just taken the coldest dose of public criticism ever handed them.
A task force of the New York-based Twentieth Century Fund and St. Louis-based Danforth Foundation has plowed into the issue of school governance across the country and raised disquieting questions:
Why do so many school boards get immersed in ''micromanaging'' hirings and firings and contracts, yet fail to focus on the big policy steps to make education exciting and rewarding for children?
Why do so many boards seem an obstacle to, rather than a force for, such fundamental reforms as school choice and school-based management? If school boards are a bastion of local democracy, why is the turnout for their elections so abysmal, as low as 7 percent in New York City?
''Fundamental changes'' must be made in local school governance if education reform is to succeed in the nation, the task force concluded. It called on state legislatures to wipe clean the slate of laws authorizing school boards, and instead authorize ''local education policy boards'' to deal with the big issues and leave day-to-day administration to superintendents.
For big cities, where many school boards have turned into angry and divisive dueling pits that chew up and disgorge superintendents with alarming regularity, the task force recommends board members be appointed, mostly by the mayor.
And in an era in which chaotic home situations, drugs, even homelessness afflict many children, the task force said it's time for all cities to consider some replica of Minneapolis' Youth Coordinating Board. It's a joint city-county-school-park-library board that tries to tie together services children need.
Chaired by Mitchell Sviridoff, former Ford Foundation official and founder-director of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, the Twentieth Century-Danforth panel included education experts, business and union leaders, superintendents, school board officials and two journalists (this one included).
Some task force members viewed today's school board system as too broke to fix, especially in big cities. The panel did outline some radical alternatives that various cities might try in a spirit of experimentation. Examples: Chicago-style parent-controlled governance committees for each school, contracting out the administration of school systems, or licensing new ''charter'' schools.
But most communities, the task force concluded, will want to stick with the fairly traditional school board form of governance. The challenge, it suggested, is to change the mentality of the boards so they'll focus on delivering top-quality education to each child.
One would think that position is centrist enough to please the school boards' establishment voice, the National School Boards Association (NSBA).
Emphatically not, it appears. NSBA executive director Thomas Shannon wrote a polemic suggesting the very idea of questioning the performance and legitimacy of school boards constituted ''haughty contempt for the American institution of representative governance.''
Mr. Shannon noted a handful of ''good'' ideas in the report -- an admonition to states not to ''interfere in day-to-day operations'' of local boards, for example. But any of the report's good ideas, he said, had long been recommended by school boards anyway.
Why this hyper-sensitivity when some entrenched institution gets questioned? Maybe it's visceral to any establishment. Circle the wagons and deny all shortcomings.
But there's probably a deeper reason: While school board governance is a mounting disaster in cities, it's only fractionally as problematic in suburban and rural communities. These, by virtue of numbers, control most school board associations.
Indeed, the splintering of metropolitan areas between center-city districts and scores of suburban districts effectively walls off major segments of society from the crises and racial diversity of troubled central city schools.
Many suburban districts are enclaves where the rich and powerful enjoy what are tantamount to private schools. Small wonder that neither they nor the school board associations they generally control welcome any questioning of the comfortable status quo.
Yet the hard facts remain: It's not just in center city districts that American students' performance is lagging far behind most industrialized nations. A pervasive mediocrity grips a lot of American education. The decline occurred on the watch of the current school boards.
What's more, the demographics are unflinching: Between now and 2010, the total of Anglo kids in America will decline by 3.8 million, while the number of 1-to-18-year-olds who are black, Hispanic, Asian or native American will increase by 4.5 million. Unless we provide better education for this population, there will be an ominous cloud over our national future.
There may never have been a more pressing time for legislatures (and the rest of us) to re-examine what's right and wrong with school governance -- and then look at fresh options and approaches to make our $200 billion a year investment in education pay off better.
Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.