During a brief visit to my hometown in August it seemed like everyone was discussing one of two topics. The first subject of conversation was the recent controversial decision to build several elementary schools to replace buildings that were shut down due to low enrollment rates a couple of years ago. Additionally, this academic year’s late start date had angered the parents of high school students who will be taking Advanced Placement courses this school year, and will have to take the corresponding college credit exams in early May. The fervent conversations that ensued were not unusual. Like most communities, the schools of my hometown are the heart and lifeblood of the community. Towards the end of every debate I was privy to, however, I asked my friends: “So, have you ever voted for school board?” Each person, aware enough to at least know about the latest headline news, responded “No,” and each person lacked plans to participate in the upcoming local elections.
Every public school district in the United States has a board of education, better known as a school board. School boards are tasked with the responsibility of representing the community as they guide and supervise the operations of the government-run schools in their jurisdiction. The decisions of this local group of people directly impact our communities. They lead and shape our schools by crafting school policies, hiring the superintendent, and managing the district’s finances. To put it simply, they write the rules. These decisions have clear justice implications in our schools and wider communities. With school boards wielding the power to write the rules that run our schools, they directly affect the ability of students, their families, and our communities to flourish. As a result, the level of our participation plays an imperative part in pursuing justice in our communities
School boards differ across the country, varying in size, term limits, necessary qualifications, and even the methods by which they are assembled. However, a majority of boards have an odd number of members and generally candidates must be at least 18 years old, allowed to vote, and living within the school district’s boundaries. Members can come from diverse backgrounds, as there are no degree or experience requirements. Concerning the assembly of school boards, some communities elect members and some have an elected official, such as a city mayor or county council, appoint them. You may very well be eligible to run for or be appointed to a seat on your local school board.
The primary role of school boards is to ensure and protect the education of its citizens. Members are not responsible for managing the daily operations of schools, but they represent the community – us – in setting the vision and direction for the school district while holding the superintendent and schools accountable in accordance to the vision. As part of their responsibilities, the board creates the rules, goals, and annual budget of the district while also enforcing the laws and standards adopted by the federal and state governments. While national rhetoric may direct all of our frustrations with the education system towards the bigger, messier levels of government, much of the change we want to see in our communities and schools begins where we are. Local school boards are entrusted by us with the power to choose curriculum, purchase textbooks, allocate resources, and create policy.
But, as a 20 something with no children of my own, is it really my place to get involved in education policy? I am not directly affected by the choices my local school board makes, so should I include my voice in the conversation? I do not currently have a family, and even if I did, what if I think it is in the best interest of my children to send them to a different type of school? What if I believe they need what a small Christian school has to offer, or what if their interests and gifts would be strengthened in a magnet school instead of a traditional government-run school? Given my current position, it’s probably not my place to get entangled with policies that don’t affect me. Considering these factors, participating in the local public school district probably isn’t my responsibility.
And yet, these policies do affect minority students and students with disabilities who are routinely pushed out of the education system and into the juvenile justice system by zero-tolerance and biased school discipline policies. Furthermore, these policies do affect the students living in the neighborhood on the other side of the train tracks in low income housing neighborhoods, because their zip code determines the quality of their classroom education, as well as the resources, support systems, and opportunities to which they have access.
These policies don’t affect me, but maybe this isn’t about me. Schools, the hearts of our communities, contribute to the wellbeing and flourishing of our fellow citizens. Education, at its core, is a justice issue, and justice is an inherent part of our Christian call. Regardless of the personal implications of the choices school boards make, our participation is about and for every person, because every person is created in God’s image. As Christians, we are called to seek justice for every child and family in our communities. As citizens, we have the ability to meaningfully participate. To help continuously improve the education systems influential in our communities, I have three suggestions:
First, we can vote. The timing of school board and local elections is dependent on the state and local community. For example, in Iowa the state government has organized all of the elections so that they are all held on the second Tuesday in September of odd-numbered years. However, in some other states local school districts choose their election day from a list of dates permitted by the state government. When casting your vote, keep in mind that effective potential school board candidates cooperatively work and communicate with others, have a holistic understanding of the purpose of the school board and the issues affecting the schools, and desire improving all of the schools for all of the students and families in your community.
Second, we can volunteer with schools and students, becoming better informed about the experienced reality of our fellow community members. Developing relationships with students and families is how we learn about the problems and barriers that are present. As college students, this may mean volunteering as a tutor or a caregiver in an after school program. As young professionals, visiting classrooms to talk on career day, organizing internship or job shadowing opportunities for high school students, or leading an extracurricular activity may also be a possibility.
Finally, we can advocate for policies and practices that honor the dignity of every student and family in our communities. School board meetings, and additional committee meetings, are open to the public. To stay informed, meetings are also often recorded and aired on local television stations, and the meeting’s minutes are frequently published online. While school boards will have different protocols, we are able to address our school boards at these meetings. Contact information for individual members is often available as well.
The responsibilities entrusted to school boards are significant to the operations of the traditional public schools in our communities. Making rules that promote justice in our schools is part of their duty. We delegate the power to create education policies to them, and these have implications that affect the ability of students and families, image bearers of God, to flourish, penetrating into the wellness of entire communities. To put it directly, education is a justice issue in our communities, and our participation – voting, volunteering, and advocating – plays an imperative part in writing the rules.
-Chelsea Maxwell is a senior social work major at Dordt College