Recently epaa/aape published a study called “National Affiliation or Local Representation: When TFA Alumni Run for School Board” (http://epaa.asu.edu/ojs/article/view/1451/1311) that literally sent a chill down spine. The study was focused on Teach For America’s increased foray into school board races and what it meant as far as local issues being represented. Apparently over the past couple years TFA has developed a School Board Leadership Initiative, which encourages and supports alumni to run for school board positions. Taken alone this might not be a big deal but if you think about the possible underpinnings, this is terrifying and not just because its TFA, but that the blueprint could be set for any private group.
Over the past decade reformers have banged the drum that school boards are obsolete. They’ve blamed them for much of the perceived crisis in education. In their eyes school management would be better done with mayoral control and/or more state and federal oversight. How often have you seen newspaper commentators decrying the role of school boards in approving charters? School boards are just one more democratic institution that needs to go away.
The problem is, getting policy passed at the federal and state level is hard work. First you have to get your people elected in races that seldom go unnoticed. Second, being on a big stage means increased scrutiny plus greater checks and balances. Ask John White and Kevin Huffman how hard making meaningful change on a state level is, and you don’t even want to get Arne Duncan started. It takes a lot of money and a lot of grit.
Now take your local school board races. They often take place in the summer months. The majority of people who don’t have children instantly tune out these races. So you automatically have a smaller stage. It’s no where near as expensive to run a school board race as it is a state/national office. We may think 100k sounds like a lot but its a drop in the bucket compared to more high profile races. School board candidates also only have to appeal to one position, education. No losing a race because people disagreed with your health policy or tax policy.
The other upside is that once elected, there is not a ton of scrutiny on what you’re passing. Now I know that my friends serving on school boards feel like there are a million eyes on them but the truth is, if you don’t have kids…. The other blessing is you can always blame things on the state. Don’t like the way we are approving Charters’? Don’t like the pay scale for teachers? The states backing us into a corner, works almost every time. Get a majority on a school board and you can wreck a lot of havoc.
If this study is to believed, I’m not the only one starting to connect these dots.
While many focus on the problems local control has created for the U.S. educational system,
local school boards have a long tradition and continue to make important decisions that shape the
future of our schools. Even after decades of increased federal and state involvement in U.S.
education policy, local boards remain a venue for creating change. In fact, school board elections
appear to be growing in their visibility with donors pouring millions of dollars in donations into
some school board candidate coffers (e.g. Nichols, 2011). Like Teach For America, it seems that
many education reformers now recognize that school board members, whether everyone likes it or
not, remain key to shaping the future of our schools. Therefore, rather than debating whether school
boards have lost power, this research points to the need to better understand how local politics is
changing and expanding as new voices enter the arena. As this work demonstrates, national leaders
may see local school boards as a place to make significant investments. This renewed interest has the
potential to bring new resources and ideas to local school politics, but it also may fundamentally
reshape how local voices participate and whether their interests are represented
That’s huge and the evidence is there to support this assertion. One needs to look no further then the school board race right here in Nashville. Special interest groups have already poured over 150k into candidates in a race were the incumbents have barely raised 30k. People don’t spend that disproportionately if they are not looking to gain something. I also don’t mean to disparage anyone, but that amount of spending is rarely done for altruistic reasons either.
So play out this scenario. We spend months writing letters and fighting against a state charter authorizer and vouchers. This fight takes a tremendous amount of energy but we manage to beat those bills back. However, all the while we’re out fighting they’re out recruiting charter sympathetic candidates to run for school board. Session ends, we’re exhausted but feeling good, only we now have to try to beat back these selected candidates who’ve have the benefit of a head start and professional organization. If they win and the board gets a charter sympathetic majority, who needs a charter authorizer. What about a TFA sympathetic majority and that big TFA contract? Pick any issue and the same scenario could play out.
The challenges of fighting against the so-called reformers include the fact that they are always attacking on multi-levels. To the outside observer, vouchers, charters, TFA, tenure all seem like separate issues. In truth they are all connected. It’s like playing whack-a-mole. While we fight charters they’re attacking tenure and while we’re playing defense on the state and federal level, they’re running an end around on the local level. It becomes exhausting keeping track of it all.
Which brings in the second challenge. Deformers like to say that its all unions and special interest groups fighting to defend the status quo or as Dr Perry likes to say “Adults trying to protect adults employment.” That’s not entirely accurate. The majority of wins that have come over the last few years have been because of grass roots groups made up of parents and teachers. Staying in the fight when you are trying to hold a job, raise a family and keep a grasp on a string of sanity is awful damn hard, and that’s part of the strategy. Wear them down so you can run them out. Unfortunately for them we’ve got to much at stake in this fight.
This is why its so important that we pay attention to local school board races and the people who win them. We need to make sure that we don’t just help quality candidates get elected but that we also help them do their job. There is a direct correlation between how effective a board member is and how arduous a defense is required for them to retain their position. We need to make sure that we don’t fall into the trap of underestimating the value of our local school board representatives. We need to make sure that this isn’t a thank less job.
The good news is that its been my observation that the more the public is exposed to these so-called reformers snake oil salesman’s shenanigans, the more they get turned off by them. That’s why we’ve got to continue to try and educate the public as much as possible. We need to take every chance to drag these shadow dwellers into the light and expose them for the self serving entities that they are. That tone may not be the proper tone but remember, we are not the ones who picked this fight.