From January to May of this year I had the pleasure of collaborating with six university students in a course that focused on democracy in education. The purpose of the project was to support Education Voters PA in better understanding the role of school boards as pro-public entities, developing resources (modules, fact sheets, support groups) for advocates interested in getting involved with their school boards, and educating and supporting college advocates in understanding the function of school boards.
In Pennsylvania and nationwide, we have seen a highly-organized, well-funded and methodical operation to undermine the public’s faith in public education at the school district level. Extremists who are supported by a sophisticated network of organizations have come out to formerly sleepy school board meetings to rant about book banning, whitewashing history and bizarre conspiracy theories. Their actions can demoralize teachers and school staff. They can wear down board members. They can negatively influence policy decisions. And increasingly their ugly and focused attacks on students in marginalized groups threaten very real harm to children.
Two teams of students were each assigned to research two PA school boards. Each team conducted research, attended school board meetings, interviewed school board members to develop composite profiles of each location, researched critical issues facing the district, and gathered information on the educational understandings of school board members in regards to their decision-making processes. For their final project students wrote a reflection paper and created a fact sheet about each district in response to the following questions.
Questions Students Considered in their Work
- How do school boards hinder and/or support the concept of democracy in education?
- In this age of information and media, how are school board members making decisions/how is that impacting their decision making?
- What is your idea of the perfect school board and how has your experience researching this school board impacted that concept?
- How do school board members build and ensure trust within their communities?
- How will you take what you have learned in this experience and utilize it in your next community?
In our meetings and their work, students emphasized the importance of school board members and advocates upholding democracy in education systems. They found that listening to community members, being transparent on challenges/issues and being knowledgeable on policies are all ways that school board members can build trust and develop relationships with community members.
At the same time, they identified the importance of school board members standing up and advocating for equity and inclusion in response to these extremist attacks.
For instance, one student wrote in their reflection paper “The former (school district) employee (who is now a school board member) that my group interviewed explained that she felt as though she could not make a difference for many of the disadvantaged students as a social worker, so she left the district and joined the school board to be able to make a difference. Although it was a tough road as a new board member, she tried to do everything she could to restore equity in the schools and on the school board.”
In contrast, another student wrote “In the board meeting I attended in person, the public was allowed to get up and speak and voice their concerns about an equity committee that the board was in the process of determining whether or not they would abolish. You could tell who on the board understood the equity committee and what their mission was and those who did not. They thought the solution to the equity committee disagreement was to simply change the name. How can you expect the public to trust your decision if your solution is to give it a new name?”
Ultimately these examples are emblematic of how school board members and advocates influence and control critical issues and policies that impact children.
We are continuing to develop this work to support advocates and school board members who are pushing back against extremists and working to support strong public schools that have a positive and inclusive school climate for all students. If you have any questions or suggestions for resources that would be helpful to you in your work, I would love to hear from you!
Katja Krieger, Director of Community Outreach , Education Voters of PA