If you look at an ordinary school district, you see the professional providers organized in the expected way. That’s what the “professional” part provides. The teachers are the subject matter experts and the de facto social workers. The administrators organize the teaching staff and, in the best of circumstances, set school-wide goals attractive enough to affect the choices made by the teachers. The unions represent the interests of the teachers so that the administrators have to keep an eye on their collective welfare.
The nonprofessionals—the political context of the school district—are the school board. They are the Congress of the district, chosen by the voters of keep an eye on things, levy taxes, adopt regulations and the support educational success as the voters in their district define educational success.
I have taken a little time with the structure because it is now coming under concerted strategic attack by conservative idealogues. School board elections have been local affairs. The candidates are voted for mostly on the basis of wanting to keep things the way they are, to change things, or to keep them the way they are but pay less money for it. Not any more.
Under Steve Bannon’s guidance, the conservatives are are funding ideologically conservative school board candidates. The issues they are using are standard issue “resentment of liberals” issues. “They threw God out of the schools,” the conservatives have been saying, so the new candidates want to put God back in the schools. “In God we trust” posters are now required in these schools. The recent emphasis on the perversion of American history we levied on ourselves with the encouragement of slavery—now crystalized in Critical Race Theory—is to (See https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/-christian-cell-company-patriot-mobile-took-four-texas-school-boards-rcna44583 ) be ignored because it is “divisive.” Certainly it is that. Sexual variations from the standard bipolar set are not to be accommodated, even by the provision of restrooms.
In short, the new well-funded candidates for school board seats are conservative ideologues. What interest they have in educational quality in their district is not a part of the campaign for office. They are running for the school board as if they were running for Congress.
It almost goes without saying that the left wing and the center could contest these seats by the same means. They could fund and run candidates that represent their take on the issues that have been brought to the fore by the conservatives. You could oppose forcing religious practices on students who were unwilling to adopt them. That is what the Supreme Court did in its liberal phase. The conservatives would call it “keeping God out of the schools” but now the question would be “or do you think we should force students to adopt religious practices?” I think the public by and large would just like that one to go away.
The same for the study of the effects of race on U. S. history and American character. Some very negative things can be said—they have been said—in a way that points to a less racist more inclusive direction for the future. The whole notion of what is “divisive” is very thin; these things used to be called “controversial” and the teacher’s job was to find a way to engage the students in dealing with the controversy.
Would that work? Yes it would, in the very limited sense that all the battles for school board positions would be turned into proxy battles for ideological victories at the national level. It would get down to the “we win some and they win some.” [The picture from my very own school district, Portland Public Schools.]
But I don’t call it working because such elections are no longer, even marginally, about how the school board is to perform as the elected supervisory body of the district. If the ideological charges are highly salient and the educational issues are only visible at the margins of public attention, then running for a board position on an educational issue is just a sure fire way to lose.
When you look at the problem I have sketched out as a balance of issues, it is clear that local voters are either going to have to care a lot less about ideological warfare or a lot more about the education of their children. It’s hard to see how that will work out.
One possibility—not a very attractive one, I admit—is to have a “meta-campaign.” That would be a campaign about what kind of campaign to have. So one candidate starts out on the ideological ground along the lines of…oh…make America a Christian nation again. The other candidate doesn’t oppose the proposition, they instead call attention to what kind of campaign his opponent is running. “Look,” the second candidate says, “My opponent wants to rile up the district with ideological warfare, when what we really need is schools that will meet our children’s need for education.”
The point of the first candidate is that you should vote for them because they believe in…oh…Truth, Justice, and the American Way (TJAW). The point of the second candidate is that you should vote, instead, for them because they want the campaign to be based on educational issues. The first candidate accuses the second of being unpatriotic; the second candidate accuses the first of being a dangerous zealot.
The good outcome for the educational candidate requires the votes of the district to put aside the sugar high of ideological rectitude and vote for school board candidates based on what kind of education they want for their children. That is asking a lot of these parents, but it is hard to see how we can hope for an education-related outcome (of a school board election!) by asking for less.
Among the frustrating part of all of this is the inability of the parents/school boards/candidates to separate the learning about a topic (isn’t that what education is supposed to be?) from the indoctrination in the topic (which is what each side accuses the other side of doing). A fall-out of the current mess is reflected in a recent survey that about half of college students say they wouldn’t date someone with different political values. How can you learn what “the other side” thinks if you don’t spend a lot of time talking with them?