Suppose you were elected mayor of your town. But suppose that once you took office, you found that state laws required you to enact policies that you otherwise would not have chosen -- policies that might even be harmful to the people who elected you. What would you do?
Our school board members might recognize that hypothetical. They are elected by the people of our school district. But, once in office, they find themselves cogs in a machine that they did not create. The state of Iowa, under the threat of losing federal funding, has passed laws requiring its school districts to pursue certain policies -- specifically, to pursue a program of raising the kids’ standardized test scores at all costs, regardless of the long-term educational consequences, regardless of whether it kills the kids’ enthusiasm for learning, regardless of whether it impairs the development of critical thinking, regardless of whether it teaches authoritarian values, regardless of whether it results in cuts in the arts and the humanities, regardless of whether it means treating the kids less humanely, and regardless of whether it results in kids’ cramming down their lunches in less than fifteen minutes while bundled up in snow pants and parkas. If the district doesn’t comply with the state’s requirements, the state can revoke its accreditation, merge the district with a neighboring district, or even put the district into receivership, like a bankrupt company.
If you’re a board member, what’s the right thing to do in that situation?
One approach would be to close your eyes to the effect of the state-mandated policies. You have to obey state law anyway, so why bother even asking whether the law harms your constituents? Just do as you’re told, and then try to use whatever freedom you have left over to make things as tolerable for your constituents as you can. In the meantime, you could pray that the law might change before you have to do anything worse. I call this the “board member as state employee” approach.
Another approach would be to think hard about what’s best for the kids, and about whether the state-mandated policies are serving or harming them. If you concluded that a state-mandated policy was actually harming the kids or impairing their education, you could work to find ways to circumvent, avoid, or undermine that policy. You could involve the community in a discussion about the effects of the policy, and about what the community should do in response. You could make a big stink about why the policy is wrong, and you could pass a resolution calling on the state to change the policy, and you could organize opposition to the policy, and you could lobby for change. You could drag your feet in implementing the policy, and make the state force you, kicking and screaming, into executing the policy. You could make it hard for the state to get its way, even if that meant risking penalties. You could proceed on the theory that if everyone fought the policy that vigorously, the state would be more likely to change it. I call this the “board member as elected representative” approach.
It may be that our board members have thought hard about No Child Left Behind and decided that raising standardized test scores at all costs really is good educational policy. I wish I knew. All I ever hear is people passing the buck. Teachers answer to the principal; principals answer to the superintendent; the superintendent answers to the school board; the school board has to comply with state law; the state has to follow federal law or lose the federal money -- so really, if you have a complaint about how your local school is treating your kids, you need to address it to Barack Obama and the five-hundred-and-thirty-five members of Congress.
That’s baloney. Sure, Congress and the President have a lot to answer for when it comes to the current state of our schools. But our elected school board members aren’t just helpless functionaries who have to meekly obey any order that comes down from above. They owe it to us to tell us whether they think No Child Left Behind is bad for our kids, and if so, how they think the district should respond. When are they going to start acting less like state employees and more like elected representatives?