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The School Board Was Not for Sale After All, But the Fight Continues

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Well, we dodged a bullet here in the Most Famous Small Town in America earlier this week. The five candidates running together for seats on the local school board, with the financial backing of a local developer, were soundly defeated in the election. Reading and understanding the complicated election returns is slightly above my pay grade—this was a primary election, and every candidate is permitted to cross-file in both the Democratic and Republican primaries—but I do know that the five candidates only combined to win 35% of the votes cast in the Republican primary, and only 20% of them on the Democratic side. 

If I'm intrepreting these results correctly, then, they seem to be saying this: voters, both Republicans and Democrats, emphatically stated that they were offended by the developer's attempt to influence the election by investing almost $20,000 of his own money in it while he simultaneously had a proposal on the table to use taxpayer money (the provision of which had to be approved by the school board) to build houses for 2,000 new residents. Voters also seemed to be sending a message to the incumbents that they always like to send to incumbents: we're not all that happy with you, either. Thus one of the most popular candidates was the retired athletic director and middle school football coach who happened not to be associated with the five candidates running together. Good decision on his part, though it may have been harder if the developer had known sooner that one of his candidates lied about being in the Secret Service. You can't make this stuff up.

As I told some of my neighbors and friends before the election, though, I hope this doesn't mean we're about to take our foot of the gas. I mentioned in an earlier post that I applied for an opening on the board just before the election (and, for the record, did not run), and was disappointed to find that the "interview" consisted of questions that had almost nothing to do with education. Common core, standardized testing, teacher evaluation, school funding—not one of them came up in the interview, except in a thinly-veiled question designed to fish out our feelings on the tax increment financing plan being proposed by the developer. I remember leaving with a sense that everybody was doing something nobody wanted to do, and the even more disturbing sense that nobody really knew how to do what they were supposed to be doing in the first place.

What a shame that is. The lack of discussion of educational issues only continued once the election season started. The group of five wanted to "control" our taxes (literally, apparently, since it appeared the developer wanted them to divert taxes earmarked for education to subsidize his building project). The incumbents, and their supporters, had very little to say in response except "we didn't raise your taxes as much as we could have!" and "but our schools are great already!" This last assertion was supported with a citation of U.S. News & World Report, which ranks high schools primarily on the basis of how well students do compared to students at other schools in the same state on the state's standardized tests (remember, those proficiency targets can be moving ones) and how many student take, and pass, Advanced Placement tests (they call this "college readiness," even though it doesn't really tell us much about how ready everyone actually is for college).

Both arguments leave me cold. The "everything is great" routine always makes me think of Alfred E. Neuman and his catchphrase: "what, me worry?" It also makes me think of the argument some have made that our public schools aren't as bad as we've been told they are. That's almost certainly true, but change is a natural part of social life and is crucial to the health of schools, which necessarily both mirror and shape society. It's good for schools to evolve and change. I also have a hard time being convinced that everything is great when I can see with my own eyes that it isn't; tracking, for example, continues to be a problem in our local schools, as it no doubt is in a lot of other places, and is often the price to be paid for those elevated proficiency scores in the age of No Child Left Behind. I'm not knocking the professionals who work in our schools, or even the structure of the school system itself. I actually think both are, by and large, pretty sound. But I'm not fooled by superficial rankings that are based on test scores that may or may not tell us something about what's actually going on in schools. For the most part, I think they don't tell us much—at least not yet.

I'm also not fooled by the argument that lowering everybody's taxes is the solution to all of our social problems, let alone our educational ones. When will this idea die? You get what you pay for, plain and simple. Why do so many people continue to believe that generating less revenue for needed social services will somehow make those services better? The group of five candidates who ran with the support of the local developer in this election had a slogan plastered across their signs and slick mailings: "For the taxpayer, for the students." In what world is the thing that's good for the taxpayers also good for the students? That world could exist if taxpayers understood and embraced their role as stewards of the future, people with a responsibility to make sure their own children, and their neighbors' children, get the education they deserve. But that obviously wasn't what these candidates meant. They meant: what's good for taxpayers is lower taxes. From there, they asserted that lower taxes are also (somehow) good for students. The obvious suggestion was that we're actually paying too much for our children's education, and it's doing them a disservice. Who believes that?

The people who want to believe it, that's who. But it doesn't make it true. A better word for it would be "selfish" or "irresponsible." I'm disappointed in the five people who ran for school board on the low taxes bandwagon (one of them—a teacher, no less!—actually said in the local paper that "we can't continue to ask the taxpayers to foot this bill" for education; well, then, who should we ask? the money fairy?), but just as disappointed in the candidates who ran against them with nothing especially positive to offer about the future of education in our community. What we need here—and what is, frankly, needed everywhere—is a more responsible approach to governing our public schools than any of these candidates were offering. Look around the country and you'll find, contrary to what you may have heard, that we have some of the best schools in the world located within our borders. But they are not in places where education is considered a throwaway investment. They tend to be in places where spending on education is prioritized. They also tend to be in places that are thriving economically as well as culturally. Those things go together. When you invest in education, the whole community benefits.

I know, I know: I'll hear all the complaints about bloated government, and how you can't solve problems by throwing money at them, and how the last thing we should do is give more money to teachers and other incompetent school personnel. But you have to recognize this for what it is: it's an agenda. It's an agenda being put forward by people who would rather exploit education as a market, not as a public good, and by people who don't want their kids exposed to new ideas, and by people who are afraid that if other people get educated they'll vote, or think, or live, differently. Like I said, you get what you pay for.

Here we need a school board that can convince the public that education should be our top priority, not an unwanted obligation, and one that can convince voters to stop sending people to Harrisburg (and Washington) who believe in the thoroughly discredited idea that we can get better services, somehow, just by paying less for them. You need it where you live too. I'll continue to try to support my local board of education, but it won't be easy if they don't change. I'll do it hoping that the people who do wind up on the board make a commitment to talking to taxpayers about how to fulfill their obligations, not avoid them. Maybe that's too much to ask, but it's worth hoping for.

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