If the last few years have taught us anything, it is that the responsibility of ensuring that every child in America has equal access to a quality education lies with all of us. This responsibility extends to school board members, who have been elected to represent their local communities and prioritize the needs of students over the superintendent or school district. School choice and legislation go hand in hand, as legislators create laws that school board members must adhere to. As elected officials, school board members take an oath to uphold these laws and understand their primary duty is to guarantee a quality education for all students. They must recognize their constitutional role and make decisions that align with the best interests of the students they serve.
Some members will claim learning rests with the superintendent. Others will claim they are not teachers. Though a member’s role isn’t administering or teaching, they are responsible for ensuring appropriate tools, methods, and techniques are procured, implemented, and utilized appropriately. A drawback to this is the one-size-fits-all model, which is outdated and unrealistic. The reality is all students learn at different rates using a range of tools, methods, and techniques in various environments. Where and how students receive a quality education is why it’s important for members to understand their role.
Whether a new or seasoned board member, it is a necessity that policy and expectations reflect board priorities. A primary responsibility for a school board is to approve and adopt policy. When policy conflicts with law or priorities, then it needs to be modified, replaced, or repealed. If a district wants to promote a quality learning environment or program, then it must make intentional decisions. And the board must hold the superintendent accountable for appropriate implementation. Policy is one tool that helps create a culture that supports learning. It should never be a weapon to hinder legal options for school choice programs.
What about implementation? Are staff onboard with the program? How effective is classroom instruction? This is where members can take the lead by making decisions that are student and education focused. It’s equally important to clearly establish and communicate expectations for district staff. They must know what is required. How tools, methods, and techniques are implemented has a huge impact on the ability of students to comprehend, understand, discuss, and critically think. After all, this is what learning is about!
What about school choice policy? When the law allows for choice, it is the duty of members to support every student that wants a learning environment that best suits them. If that leads to using a scholarship, voucher, or homeschooling, the board should support parents’ decisions. Parents know what’s best for their child. The system does not! There are too many boards that establish roadblocks to ensure students remain in their zip code assigned school. Is this in the best interest of the student?
What is the driving force to keep students in the public-school system? The obvious answer is to retain their monopoly of power and control, which revolves around keeping tax dollars that serve more to expand the bureaucracy than educate students. Yes, there are some public schools that do a good job. But there are too many that do not. Simply look at one indicator: test scores. When school districts report that less than 50% of 3rd graders read at grade level, all members must acknowledge something needs to change. AND take corrective action. The system must let go of the purse strings, scare tactics, and put students first.
Then there are students who experience anxiety and fear going to school due to the exponential increase in behavioral issues. Some of these issues cause not just mental harm, but also physical harm. No student should be subjected to an environment that is antithetical to learning, thriving, and becoming successful.
Members must remember they are elected. They are constitutionally responsible for ensuring their district provides students the best education possible. This includes allowing school choice programs to be part of the portfolio. However, transparency continues to be a concern with many parents as public schools aren’t known to promote choice. Members must realize they serve the public and must continually seek improvement, hold the system accountable, and ensure students discover and use their talents.
There is much to learn as a sitting school board member. Grasping the various facets can be daunting. Every year brings continuing or new challenges. Governing and supporting policy and expectations related to school choice is only one aspect. Access to training and resources from organizations like FreedomWorks is imperative for individuals serving on school boards. These tools and guidance, offered by experienced school board members, can help minimize the learning curve and equip board members with the necessary knowledge and skills to make a positive impact in their roles. By having access to these resources, board members can not only better serve their communities but also contribute to the overall improvement of the education system.
Dr. Karen Hiltz is FreedomWorks BEST’s National School Board Policy Advisor. Dr. Hiltz served in the Navy, is a retired Federal Procurement Professional, and taught business courses in undergraduate and graduate programs. Elected in 2015 to the Franklin County School Board, VA, she created The Apple Report Facebook page to communicate with constituents. In 2016, she was appointed to a Community College Local Advisory Board. Other experience includes serving on a private school board, multiple education non-profit boards, authored numerous articles on education and two books. Dr. Hiltz holds a BS and MBA in Management, an Ed.D. in Leadership Studies, and currently resides in Florida.