As political activists are increasingly prevalent in our public schools, parents across the country are growing more frustrated with what their children are being taught, and what they can do about it.
Parents and concerned members of your community are not powerless, and don’t need to appeal high-ranking leaders like governors. There is an elected body in your local community that has enormous power to set policies for your public school: the school board.
Local school boards and school board members are at the core of how education runs for every community in our nation. How well a school is working in a community depends to a great extent on how well the school board is focused on its ABC’s: Academics and Accountability, Budget and Board Governance, and Curriculum.
First, the basics
There are more than 90,000 school board members serving America’s 51.5 million K-12 students and their families in over 17,170 regular and charter school districts across the country. Together, school board members comprise the nation’s largest body of elected officials.
Once elected, the local school board holds primary decision-making power on virtually all aspects of education in their jurisdiction, while often overseeing a large portion of the local town, city, or county budget. Individual school board members do not have the ability to make decisions on their own, as the power is vested only to the full board acting as a body.
There are standards that a state board of education may set as a framework, often regarding testing and assessment, which local school boards must follow or incorporate. However, local school boards do not report to the state board of education; their sole accountability is to the voters in the local jurisdiction.
The school boards across the country govern, but do not operate, their local school district. The day-to-day management of a district is an indirect responsibility by way of one of the most important tasks of a school board: hiring the Superintendent. As an employee of the board, the Superintendent has the operational responsibility for a district. The school board exercises oversight in a way that is – or should be – consistent with the community.
However, school board elections have typically low turnout, with studies showing as little as 10% of the voting population casting ballots in suchy races. As we are seeing today, schools and the boards that govern them often operate at odds with the values and priorities of the community – and so it is the obligation of that community to replace wayward board members with those who do not view schools as an opportunity to promote radical political activism.
A: Academics and Accountability
The pursuit of academic excellence for all students should be the primary focus of any school board. Residents tuning into a local school board meeting or reviewing an agenda should see that student academic achievement is driving the work of the local board.
Students of every ability require support, whether in advanced courses, general education, special education, or career and technical education. A school board’s main purpose is to ensure each student has a path to success.
Increasingly, we are finding that this is not the case. Instead, the “A” has been replaced by “Advocacy” by individual school board members, or the school board as a whole for ideological, political, and culture war causes that have or nothing to do with academic excellence or preparing students for success. The pursuit of trendy “social justice” causes is increasingly consuming the time of school boards and the budgets of our school districts.
School boards not only have the authority, they have the responsibility to direct the superintendent to provide detailed reports on the academic performance of students in the district. Without such data, a school board cannot make informed decisions about the allocation of resources, the professional development of teachers and staff, hiring, and strategic planning.
The other “A”, accountability, should be demanded by parents and taxpayers in a community. Accountability can be sought in a variety of ways, including members of the public participating in comment periods afforded during school board meetings, submitting written questions or requests for an open town hall to a school board member, or filing a freedom of information action (FOIA) request.
The ultimate form of accountability is nominating and electing school board members who reflect the will of the community, or recalling those board members who choose to defy the wishes and interests of the people.
B: Budget and Board Governance
School board funding is sourced largely from three pots of money: local, state, and federal taxes. The way a school board spends this money should be of utmost interest to the local community. A vast majority of funding covers salaries, as employees and staff are the main cost in education. The specifics behind the salaries, however, is where members of the public can seek insight and clarity. The greater level of detail in a budget in how salaries are allocated to specific schools, grades, programs, and initiatives, the greater clarity there can be in whether resources are being spent to reflect the values of the community – or whether they are being diverted to political or other causes.
We know budgets aren’t the most exciting thing in the world, but digging into them will reveal intentions and agendas. The generic “cost per student” dollar figure which is used to identify the cost of education in a community does not provide clarity on the priorities of the superintendent and school board.
Those who seek more detail on budgets may encounter resistance from school board members, as this degree of transparency is not often encouraged or embraced. However, a school board cannot demonstrate what it values in its budget if it does not share a budget that is meaningfully discernible by the public it represents. You are the taxpayer who funds the schools. Ask for budget details.
On the matter of the other “B” – board governance – school boards alone decide how to spend their time. While there may be some meeting parameters established at the state level, generally the board agrees annually when they will meet, how long they will meet, and what is on their agenda. A glance at a school board’s website and upcoming agendas should give anyone a good idea of the board’s priorities.
Watching a school board meeting will further reveal how the board is governing itself. Since there is no body – state or local – that oversees the school board, this is the public’s responsibility. The board should follow a meeting protocol, such as Robert’s Rules of Order, and have parliamentary procedures built into the conduct of its meetings.
A school board should also have procedures in place to ensure that FOIA requests from the public are fulfilled on-time and in accordance with the law, with the greatest transparency and least expense to the public as possible. A school board should post relevant agendas and documents for the public well in advance of meetings and adhere to open meetings (or “sunshine”) laws, as applicable, by making decisions in public.
If a local school board does not appear to be governing or functioning in a transparent way, the time has come for parents and community members to get together and demand clarity and accountability.
Curriculum, Curriculum, Curriculum
In the ABC’s of a school board, the “C” that matters covers just one thing: curriculum. What are students learning, is it what they should be learning, and why are they learning it? A local school board’s oversight has, as its core function, the approval of the curriculum taught by every teacher to every student.
The current climate of education in the nation has seen certain curriculum areas come under attack. More school boards are actively placing magnet programs and schools, history curriculum, and accelerated or advanced studies in math and science either on the chopping block or having them overhauled. These efforts seek to eliminate or alter curriculum under the guise of objectives such as “anti-racism,” to advance “equity,” or to advance other political agendas.
It is important to remember that the authority for approving curriculum lays squarely with a local school board. While the state board of education may have standards that have to be met or upheld, the decision rests on the vote of each school board member to accept or reject the recommendations of the superintendent.
Inquiring what children are taught in a local school or district should be a relatively simple exercise. The degree of accountability and transparency the school board demonstrates will be evident in the degree of ease of access parents and members of the public have to the curriculum materials, pedagogical practices in curriculum delivery, and individual student achievement.
Parents and the community at large should be proactively informed about the curriculum and educational goals of the school board. Questions that arise from parents should be answered fully and without delay or obfuscation. Encountering pushback, or less than fulsome answers, should cue a parent to ask for a lot more details about what is being taught, how it is being taught, and why the students are learning the selected curriculum.
Engaging – or Becoming – Your Local School Board
Understanding and addressing education in the classroom begins with parents getting involved with their local school board. By attending or watching their meetings, the competencies of a school board are revealed. How does the board focus its time, direct its superintendent, interact with the public, spend the taxpayer’s money, and respect the voice of parents and the community they represent?
Every election season gives parents an opportunity for a reset if education is not going in the right direction in their community. An election season begins well in advance, with recruiting candidates, determining the best approach to issues, and then a campaign of turning out supporters for candidates whose election will create an opportunity for positive change.
The single most effective thing you and other concerned members of your community can do is get involved with your school board – and be empowered to run for the school board or help those that do so!
Resources for Parents:
American Enterprise Institute (AEI) – A detailed survey and snapshot report on the nation’s school boards, governance, statistics on school board members, and more.
Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) – Is your school board focused on pathways to success for all students? Do they discuss meeting the needs of students not only to be college-ready, but also work and life ready? The future job openings by education level are predicted by BLS and your local school board should be preparing students accordingly.
National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) – Love data? The NCES is the U.S. Department of Education’s data warehouse from its Institute for Education Science. Find information on the size of schools, school districts, student population, attendance, demographics, and more on this site.
Education Commission of the States – An overview and comparison of each state’s role in education of their K-12 students, including their constitutions and the power and duties of their legislatures, governors, state educational leadership, and local school boards.