Q: Election day is coming up. What should a parent be looking for in a school board candidate?
Voting is always a personal decision. You might have a certain ideology you’re looking for, or certain character traits in the candidate. All I can tell you is what I, in my humble opinion, look for as a teacher and parent. But first, let me tell you three things I don’t care about:
1. Do they have a distinct vision for the district?
That may be what I want to see in a superintendent, but school board members have to have a “shared” vision because they are part of a team. I’ve known many school board members with wonderfully unique visions for schools, but they were totally ineffective because the other members did not share that vision. The ability to work together to solve problems is a more important skill than having a unique plan for the future.
2. Were they a teacher?
There are clearly some advantages to having teachers on the board because of their experience, and I love it when they are the best candidates. On the other hand, teachers are just as susceptible to tunnel vision and groupthink as anyone else. The fact is, education isn’t only the business of educators: everyone has a stake in it. We need people who are willing to look at the bigger picture and rethink how we do school. I’m looking for individuals who have a bold, critical perspective on education, and it makes little difference to me whether that perspective originated from inside or outside the classroom.
3. Do they have a plan to reach a particular group of students?
It sometimes feels like we don’t have one school system, but a myriad of small subcultures that teachers are required to minister to. Regular ed, special ed, gifted, AP, 504, high-income, low-income, blacks, whites, hispanics, males, females: the list of all the various segments that someone at the district level is in charge of can go on and on. Someone from above is always angry or concerned about one group falling behind or another group getting ahead, as if education is one giant competition where someone winning has to mean that someone else is losing. It’s easy to pick one segment and say “I’m going to ensure that this group doesn’t fall behind,” but I have much more respect for a candidate who will assert that he or she is going to do what is best for all students regardless of label.
Here are five things I do care about, but perhaps not in the way you may think:
1. Do they plan to implement specific programs?
“Programs” rarely educate anybody. Teachers and parents do. Adding more “programs” to a district usually means adding more central staff, more expense, and more bureaucracy, and we already have far too much of them all (see “personalized learning”). I’d rather have a candidate who wants to deconstruct the burden of central administration and place more educational responsibility on teachers to do their jobs.
2. Do they see themselves as the saviors?
School boards are supposed to be overseers, not micromanagers. When too many decisions are made from a central office, it hurts kids in the long run. In my experience, education works best when power is decentralized and outsourced to individual schools, principals, parents, and faculties who know their children better than anyone. This is the essential reason why charter schools are running laps around regular schools: they have the ability to do what’s best for the kids they know and love. Regular schools have to do what’s best for their mid-level supervisors, even if it doesn’t help anyone in their building.
3. Do they think technology is the answer?
4. Do they think discipline needs to be more positive?
It doesn’t. Nor does it have to be negative. It needs to be scrupulously neutral. It needs to set the tone for a school’s focus on academics by clearly delineating standards for behavior and permitting tough consequences when students step out of line, no matter who the student is. Good discipline isn’t about the positivity of the discipline: it’s about the positivity of the environment when kids are permitted to focus on academics without being harassed by misbehaving peers. Its main purpose is to uphold the fundamental right of all students to learn, not to ensure that disobedient students are happy.
5. Do they believe parents are more responsible for their children than school districts?
They are. And if they support any measures that fail to acknowledge this fundamental fact, I hold very little hope for their ability to accomplish much.
I respect school board members because it is a thankless job that requires lots of time, pays very little, and makes almost no one happy. But if they stick to conscience over cost and common sense over current trends, they have the potential to rise to the level of the high honor they seek.