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Nuts & Bolts: Inside a Democratic campaign—school boards

What makes for a good school board?

What exactly does a school board do, and what makes for a good school board? When it comes time to vote, most of us know who is running for governor, the U.S. Senate, or the U.S. House; but ask people about who is running for their local school board, and they draw blanks. A lot of these races run uncontested, and people assume that, since many of these races are non-partisan, these boards are not the target of the conservative agenda.

This kind of thinking has proven very wrong in the last decade, and bad school boards have worked on policies detrimental to educational efforts—which in turn impact everything about a community, from property values to community values.

How bad can a school board really be for a community? In 2011, a North Carolina school board moved on policies that showed exactly how detrimental a bad school board can be, as laid out in the Washington Post:

But over the past year, a new majority-Republican school board backed by national tea party conservatives has set the district on a strikingly different course. Pledging to “say no to the social engineers!” it has abolished the policy behind one of the nation’s most celebrated integration efforts.

And as the board moves toward a system in which students attend neighborhood schools, some members are embracing the provocative idea that concentrating poor children, who are usually minorities, in a few schools could have merits – logic that critics are blasting as a 21st-century case for segregation.

The situation unfolding here in some ways represents a first foray of tea party conservatives into the business of shaping a public school system, and it has made Wake County the center of a fierce debate over the principle first enshrined in the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education: that diversity and quality education go hand in hand.

This is just one example of a bad school board. Conservatives have also used school boards to impact educational policy on sexual education, human-dignity issues, the teaching of science and arts, as well as teacher pay and contracts. School boards can have a big impact on the values present in your community. 

So what are the key functions of a good school board? Great Schools put out this graphic, which effectively presents what makes a good school board: 

The key items in a successful school board

What makes a great school board candidate?

Most educational journals and education advocates look at what makes for a great school board member. What makes for a great school board member, however, is not always the same as what makes for a great school board candidate.

When I visit Democratic groups, I often hear them talk about making sure they have a candidate with a fantastic resume. They look for candidates with advanced degrees who are prominent in the community, have money and resources, and so on.  These things matter as far as how effective someone might be if they were elected, but they aren’t necessarily the requirements or makeup of a good candidate. Outside of district attorneys and attorneys general, very few races on your Election Day ballot have resume requirements for a person seeking office. You don’t need advanced degrees, tons of wealth, or a seat on other boards in order to be successful. What you do need is a commitment to put in the work required to win. You also need a connection to the community you plan to serve. Maybe you are a parent, a member of the PTA, a supporter of school extracurricular activities, a former educator, or a bus driver. Any way you connect with the community helps you in your campaign.

That is what makes the difference in recruiting a good candidate. The resume certainly can be considered, but in a choice between two potential candidates, with one committed to put in the work required to win, and another with a slightly better resume but less interest in working to win, most of us will root for the candidate with the work ethic to win, who will makes themselves available to the public.

Many great members of school boards do not have advanced degrees. They aren’t wealthy. They aren’t serving on many boards in their communities. But they are concerned citizens who want to make sure young people have a good education. This drive is what can separate great candidates from okay candidates. 

Building community values

Bad school boards can institute policies harmful to communities. They can harm sexual education and community acceptance, push intolerant viewpoints, abuse the financial ability of a community, or use the school to the advance a conservative agenda.

Great school boards can build the value of a community. Communities prosper with good schools, as parents want to move into good school districts, which can increase property value and help a community grow economically. Great school boards can use the power they have to build connections to the community that develop a solid economic plan for a city, county, or township. They can help make sure that young people have actual facts to learn from, instead of dogma.

When people dismiss these races as too small, we remind them that a race for a position on a school board is one that can fire up a community and change the outlook of residents. Conservatives have known this for years, and have put their efforts into changing school boards into a collection of rubber-stamp members with, at times, an anti-diversity, anti-education outlook.

So could you be a school board member? Do you know someone who has thought about it? From school board to the lieutenant governor’s office was certainly a path in Kansas. But even if your highest goal is the school board, the impact you can have on your community, and on the children in your community, should not be undervalued.

Next Week: What the heck is it with special boards?

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