A School Board Elections Primer
By Eve Cohen
Fall is upon us, and with the change of seasons comes a new round of elections, including the November race for School Board. Yard signs are coming out, campaign e-mails and flyers are showing up in our boxes. All the candidates seem to be saying good things – I’ve yet to see a flyer stumping for low quality schools and poor student performance – but there are definite issues and platforms that help differentiate one candidate from another. The composition of our School Board affects the policies and structure of our schools, so it’s important to know where your candidate stands on several important topics. Here’s a rundown on some of this year’s major issues, and what you should look for (or ask for) when examining every candidate’s campaign rhetoric.
The issue of standardized testing in schools has been controversial for the past several years. Is there too much testing going on at school? Does testing have value for students, teachers and parents? Is using a test score a valid way to judge the success and achievement of a student, teacher or school? Is testing achieving its goal of improving school quality, lowering achievement gaps for children of color and helping students improve academically? Is focus on testing squeezing out other important parts of school, such as PE, foreign languages, social studies, music and art? Because testing consumes both finances and time, it’s important for any School Board candidate to have a position about it. If your candidate has not yet taken a firm position on this or you can’t find what it is, ask them.
Charter Schools vs. Neighborhood Schools
There’s no question that in school districts throughout Colorado, charter schools are making their presence felt. A charter school is a publicly-funded but independently administered school that is free to follow different rules and policies than those set by the district. In general, entrance to a charter school is not guaranteed as it is in a district-run neighborhood school; one must enter a lottery to gain entrance. In the past few years, Colorado has seen an unprecedented influx of charter schools into the state. Some feel that charter schools benefit the community, arguing they increase the amount of school choice parents possess. Others fear they are closing off neighborhood options, cherry-picking their students and siphoning public money into private, often corporate hands. Find out what your candidate thinks about charter schools and what place, if any, they should have in your district.
Local vs. Out-of-State Control
Past School Board elections have seen a dramatic rise in the amount of out-of-state funding flowing into local campaigns. While this may be legal, many citizen’s feel Board candidates should represent the interests of their constituents rather than the desires and concerns of individuals or corporations outside the district or state. Campaign contributions can be tracked: http://tracer.sos.colorado.gov/PublicSite/SearchPages/ContributionSearch.aspx.
Over the past year, Colorado districts have seen as many as 30% of their teachers leave their schools, a one-in-three departure rate. Many schools are relying on less-trained teachers, who may not have teaching degrees, to make up the teacher shortfall. Charter and Innovation schools are free to hire teachers outside the Teachers Union, which may result in low-pay, long hours and, consequently, high rates of teacher turnover. What is your candidate’s response to the problem of teacher retention? How does he/she feel about relaxing the educational requirements for teachers? What does he/she feel are the most important steps to ensure Colorado has enough quality teachers to meet future demand?
Throughout Colorado, communities have been complaining that educational decisions such as school closures, types and sizes of particular schools and school boundaries have been made without adequately considering the needs and concerns of parents and community members. Where does your candidate stand on the issue of community engagement? How will he/she work to ensure the communities affected by any decision will be properly heard?
Every candidate wants every school to be a high-quality one. However, the composition and resources of every school is not the same. Students in high-poverty areas can have different needs than those in middle class areas. Schools in wealthy areas often fundraise internally to provide things like after-school enrichments, full-time librarians, teaching assistants, and robust art, music and science programs, additions that poorer schools may lack. How will your candidate address such issues of equity of funding and resources? How can schools with greater needs – high numbers of English language-learners or special-needs kids – get those needs met?
The composition of the School Board affects the configuration of our schools. Look beyond the smiling children everyone has on their campaign material and make sure you know where your candidate really stands on the issues that are crucial to the success of both kids and schools.