Grineski: What kind of schools do we want?
Columnist Steve Grineski writes about the changing role and importance of school board members.
School boards, a 17th century American invention, are one of the nation’s oldest forms of democratic governance. The Constitution does not reference education or schooling. Through provisions in the 10th Amendment, powers not specifically assigned to the federal government, become each state’s responsibility —so education is a state duty, with powers delegated to local communities. Today, 95,000 board members set broad school policy for roughly 13,500 public school districts serving about 50 million students.
West Fargo, Fargo, and Moorhead established school boards, in the late 1870s, following the opening of new schools. As now, publicly elected school board officials serve as ratifiers, negotiators, managers, and analysts—regarding broad policies related to issues such as finance, school openings/closings, boundary changes, and personnel matters. Building administrators and teachers are tasked with responding to daily school operations and instruction. About 100 years ago, for example, Fargo board members discussed the value of adding Norwegian and whether insubordination was grounds for teacher dismissal. Negotiating teacher salaries, of course, is the timeless issue.
Another similarity between then and now is focus on social issue debates. Today's boards respond to more debates that generate greater intensity and attention. Historically, debates ranged from the type of schooling women, the poor, and students of color deserved to requiring teachers to sign loyalty oaths.
Current debates also center on contentious social questions, such as: Can students be required to wear masks during a nation-wide virus? Should public school monies be used to educate students in private schools? Do teachers have curricular freedom to teach about and discuss race and racism in American society? Should public schools be inclusive places that affirm LGBTQ+ students or not? And, while books have always been banned in public school libraries, the scope has expanded rapidly—who decides and why?
Everyday information suggests that many debates, upon which school boards weigh in, are more commonplace, increasingly political, and less focused on the educational needs of students. The landscape of many school board elections, as a result, has become more competitive, quarrelsome, and partisan, and are framed by national political stances. In 2018, 40% of the nation’s school board candidates in the 200 largest districts ran unopposed, last year only 24% did. Nation-wide school board members, in 2018, ranked student achievement, funding, and teacher quality as extremely urgent, conversely social issues like gender and identity were ranked as somewhat urgent or not urgent.
This year in Moorhead, 11 individuals are running for three open board seats and illustrate the conservative to progressive picture of contemporary school board elections. Some candidates advocate for more parental involvement regarding policy decisions, worry about state-level political indoctrination, and library book content. Other candidates view their work as non-partisan, while advocating for school safety, mental health, ample staffing, and academic achievement.
The role board members play in determining the kind of education students receive is critical to the future of our communities, states, and nation. What kind of schools will we have and what of their purpose?
Steve Grineski taught in the Apple Valley and Maple Grove school districts for 10 years, before joining the teacher education faculty at Minnesota State University for 31 years. He retired in 2015. For the past five years he worked with families at Churches United for the Homeless.
This letter does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Forum's editorial board nor Forum ownership.