The Denver Post
Why have school boards at all?
Ballots have gone out; now it should get really ugly. With more than $1.5 million in campaign coffers, we can expect some serious mudslinging, particularly along the Front Range in the remaining weeks before the 2017 Colorado school board elections.
In Douglas County, two slates of candidates, the union-backed Dream Team and the pro-school choice Elevate Douglas County lineup, are vying for four seats. In Denver, 10 candidates are running for four seats that will determine the direction of that district. In Jefferson County, two of the three union-backed incumbents elected during the 2015 recall face opponents. All are seeking the support of the few who vote in school board elections.
Election time inevitably brings overheated debates over pedagogy, textbooks, sex education, school closures, soda machines, internet access, student privacy, student religious expression, discipline, free speech, school choice options, holiday programs, testing, and school safety. Arguments often degrade to allegations of being anti-education, anti-student, anti-teacher or anti-parent, as if anyone is actually any of those things.
Why do we put ourselves through this?
Majoritarian politics has been the mechanism for resolving these perennial disputes for 150 years or so. Parents and other members of the community can voice their concerns at meetings and they can vote for board members, but at the end of the day, a bare majority determines what goes on in public schools. There are winners and losers and, in a $634 billion industry, high stakes.
But education policy doesn’t have to be political; it can just be personal. With the growth of school choice laws, voice is little by little being replaced by choice. All but a handful of states have public charter schools which operate independently of the school district and half of states offer a private school option to parents through vouchers, tax incentives, or education savings accounts. Rather than cast a vote, parents vote with their feet. They can pick a school that best meets their children’s needs without attempting to change the system for everyone.
Imagine if we didn’t have to fight over standards, testing, pedagogy or school start times and everyone just made their own decisions like they do when selecting a college, a preschool, a doctor, a job, a home, or dozens of other weighty life choices.
Would the end of school boards mean the end of school districts? Districts provide needed services regarding special education, capital projects, professional development, technology, personnel and other operations. Such services, however, don’t have to come from a district. Public charter schools and charter school networks often provide for these services within their own buildings, within their network, or through contracts. Private schools and private school networks like Catholic Diocese schools do likewise. Because the information age has leveled barriers to information and resources, institutions are no longer the exclusive centers of expertise.
Because we’ve relied on school boards and district administration of schools for some time doesn’t mean we must. The public school system is not a timeless tradition but an evolving institution born of the mid19th century Common School movement. Common School proponents like Horace Mann believed public schools would increase social cohesion, help assimilate immigrants, and promote upward social mobility, prosperity, and civic knowledge for all Americans. It is worth asking if the public school system as currently configured is still accomplishing these aims or if there might be a better way.
Education and the education system are not the same thing. The latter is but a means to the former. Each election, we wade through campaign vitriol and cast our vote for a school board candidate; maybe we don’t