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I Ran for School Board... And I'm Kind of Sorry I Lost

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A little over a week ago, we had a startling announcement in our little town: a member of the school board had decided to resign for health reasons. There would be an unexpected short-term opening, and applications were being solicited. My wife read about it in the newspaper. "Now's your chance!" she said ominously. "You should apply." I wasn't sure she was right, but, then, what reason did I have to say no?

To be accurate, I did not run for school board; since this was a special opening applications were being solicited, and the board was permitted, by law, to choose a new member itself in a public hearing. The application process was simple: I wrote a letter of interest focused on my qualifications (four children in local schools; seven years of K-12 teaching experience, and eight more in teacher education at the university level; National Board certification; chair of education at the local liberal arts college), and filled out a required Statement of Financial Interests form, which required me to disclose any debts over $6,500—though these were not actually my interests, but someone else's. The next day, an article appeared in the paper reporting that nine people had applied. My letter was misquoted and my experience incorrectly reported, but the mistakes were relatively minor. I was ready.

As far as I could tell only three of the nine candidates for the position had any significant experience in education: there was me, of course, and then there two others who had taught, or were teaching, in neighboring districts. But, for the most part, it still seems to be the case, in my town at least, that "civic leader" is synonymous with "business leader," and that both, when it comes to the school board, are synonymous with educational leadership.

Maybe that's a good thing, but it made me wonder: what would a school board that was comprised of a few more educators look like? For one thing, it would probably have more women as members. Our board did have three female members, and it still does, as the winner of this sweepstakes was a man. So the gender balance is definitely skewed, and had I been appointed to the board I would not have helped much in that regard. And, to be fair, the retiring member is also a woman (this is one reason that my first response to my wife when she suggested I apply for a position on the board was: "No, you should apply!"). My point is not to suggest that something has gone awry among the voters in my community because their choice of school directors leans toward one gender over another, though that may be the case. It's to point out that the membership of a school board has a lot to do with how priorities are determined and how arguments about what's best for children and communities are framed. The perspective of a small business owner accustomed to struggling to balance his books or a retired military officer frustrated by the inefficient functioning of local government or the retiree worried about his taxes is bound to be different from that of a teacher engaged in the everyday work of trying to work with the kids who are brought up, constantly, as the real reason anyone ever serves on a school board in the first place.

This is more than just intuition. Researchers Chris Karpowitz and Tali Mendelberg have found that gender dynamics have a significant impact on the business school boards consider—and on how they consider it. They found that even when women make up a majority on a local school board—and it should be pointed out here that an estimated 40% of all school board members in the U.S. are women, much higher than the percentage of women in local government more generally—they still struggle to have their voices heard and, for a variety of reasons, rarely exercise their power in a way that's proportional to their representation on the board. In other words, it's only when women make up 60% of a board or more, Karpowitz and Mendelberg found, that they make as many motions as their male colleagues. And it's only when they control 70% or more of the seats on a board that women even match the number of comments typically made by male members of the board. "Ask any woman if she has ever made a suggestion in a business meeting and had it passed over, and a few hours later, a man makes the same suggestion, and it gets picked up," Anne Bryant, the former executive director of the National School Boards Association, told a reporter from Education Week last year. The feeling such experiences engender can have an impact on the very topics a board considers, which tend, in some ways, to be very narroely conceived, if not small-minded.

This was the thing that surprised me least about my interview with the school board, but bothered me the most: the narrow topics we discussed, and the sense that the goal was to avoid change, not embrace it. The interview process went like this: each of the eight candidates for the position (one withdrew before the interview) were invited, after a random drawing to determine the interview order, to answer a series of questions posed by the members of the board. Each board member asked one question of each candidate—and each board member asked his or her question to each candidate. So, for example, one member asked everyone, in turn, what their time commitment to the board would be; his question was a slam dunk for the retirees who had applied, but not so easy to respond to for those of us who actually have children in the local schools and are still building careers. Another asked us all to say what had caused us to want to apply in the first place (after fielding that question, I took one from another board member, a retired lieutenant colonel in the Army, who prefaced his own question by saying: "Professor, I don't think you know what you've gotten yourself into," to which I thought to myself, as I considered what I do for a living, I may be the one person in the room who best knows what he's getting himself into).  One member asked "what do you think is expected of a board member?" Another prefaced her question by pointing out that members feel a lot of pressure from "special interest groups," and wanted to know how we planned to deal with such pressure.

In short, the questions seemed to reveal that the responsibilities of the board were being very narrowly defined by the members themselves, and not very positively: it's hard work, it's thankless, the hours are long, and people are always asking you to do something. They were all deadly serious, and the questions, to me, at least, exposed a certain provincialism in their thinking; no one asked, for example, about the larger issues facing schools, issues that school boards would seem to be exceptionally well positioned to address—issues like common core implementation, testing, declining state appropriations, and teacher quality. They also seemed to be fishing for responses that could serve as litmus tests. The president of the board, after saying in the newspaper that the board was looking for someone who didn't have a political agenda, asked a thinly-disguised question about using school taxes to fund economic growth (a hot local issue) that most of the canddiates openly said they didn't even understand.

Another member lobbed a softball about the importance of public education; I heard candidate after candidate say something along the lines of "public education is obviously important because it made me who I am," or "my kids have had a great experience in our schools and I want to support that." These are wonderful sentiments, to be sure, but the responses to them did not do much to indicate how the school board itself could help improve the quality of our civic discourse or expand students' horizons. Another asked: "what's the biggest problem our local schools face?" Several candidates said some variation of "none," probably passing that test. If anyone expected to hear criticism of the district, they wouldn't hear it here. Maybe that's a good thing, too, but it's not especially constructive since education is about values and values are always in conflict in a democratic society. 

I came away from the experience of applying for membership on the board feeling slightly more connected, in some ways, to my local community, but also like someone who had applied for membership in a club and been turned down. Afterward I ran into one of my students, a future teacher who was attending the meeting that night as part of a project for an American government class he was taking. He had missed the interviews, unfortunately, but had arrived in time to hear the nominations and the vote. In the end, four of the candidates were nominated by at least one member of the board: a male teacher who teaches a neighboring district and had resigned from the board recently; a military veteran and corporate retiree; the co-owner of a local ice cream shop; and a recently retired high school assistant principal and athletic director. My student was flummoxed. "I can't believe you weren't even nominated!" he said. "You're the chair of education at the local college." I reminded him that the politics of education are messy, and that some forms of experience and expertise play differently in some settings than they do in others. I also reminded him that people with expertise don't always do themselves the favor of listening to others in addition to saying what they believe, which doesn't always help our cause.

But he had a point: in the end, you'd think that one of two concerns would have been important to the board, especially under the circumstances. Since this was a short-term position, they could have taken a risk and selected someone less like the typical board member—a woman, perhaps, or a person with a specific body of expertise and skills currently lacking on the board, skills very relevant to its work. Instead, they made the safest choice they could have made: they selected their own former colleague, a teacher at least, but one from another disctrict who mainly distinguished himself, as far as I could tell, by being the one person in the group who had done this before.

The message, to me, was loud and clear, and is one we all need to think about as we grapple with questions about "local control" vs. "top-down solutions" (or "small-town thinking" vs. "broader perspectives on solving shared problems"): even, or maybe especially, if they are locally elected, our school boards have to be pushed to diversify and prodded to expand their own views and areas of expertise. As voters, we may need to spend more time thinking about who serves in our local communities in that crucial first line of education policymaking. I was charmed by my student's naivete, in a way, when he found I didn't even make it to the vote, but also should have been energized by it. He recognized that I had no business buying what they were selling on Monday night and letting myself be relieved by the outcome. I should have been more disappointed than I was. Today, I am. Maybe running for school board is something I ought to consider more seriously after all.

 

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